Employment in Sweden: aiming high


by Hyunjeong Hwang, OECD Economics Department

Cover of the economic survey of Sweden 2023

Sweden has a very high labour force participation rate and one of the highest employment rates in the OECD, but cannot afford to be complacent. Maintaining high employment is a prerequisite for the sustainability of the Swedish welfare state and to counter the ageing-related contraction of the labour force and its negative fiscal impacts. The 2023 OECD Economic Survey of Sweden delves into some challenges holding back labour supply and proposes measures to make the Swedish labour market stronger, more inclusive, and conducive to sustained economic growth.

Long-term unemployment, notably among the foreign-born, remains a significant challenge. With lower educational attainment and lower Swedish language skills than natives, foreign-born people may struggle to get a job in a labour market characterised by a compressed wage distribution that demands high skills and productivity. Additionally, foreign-born women often face strong gender and family norms. Re-skilling and activation policies are key for these groups. A recent reform of the Public Employment Service, introducing a purchaser-provider model with outcome-based payments for employment services could help, but needs to be carefully monitored and calibrated to align providers’ incentives with the objectives of the reform and to secure sufficient competition. Carefully reviewing social assistance with the aim to strengthen work incentives while ensuring decent living standards for people in need could also help.

Taxes on work are high, particularly among above-average income earners in Sweden (Figure 1). The top personal income tax rate is among the highest in the OECD and it applies from a low threshold. As a result, a relatively large share of taxpayers faces the top marginal tax rate. Meanwhile, tax rates on dividends and capital gains are relatively low. The large difference between taxes on labour income and capital income creates incentives for high-wage earners to reclassify their income as capital income in order to minimise their tax obligations. Furthermore, housing taxation is both low and regressive. Shifting taxation away from labour and towards property and capital income would thus help create a more balanced and equitable tax structure, promoting labour supply and inclusive growth while preserving fiscal sustainability.

Lengthening working lives as life expectancy increases is essential to strengthen public finances and to ensure sufficient pension income. Reforms in the 1990s made Sweden’s pension system the envy of countries around the world, with in-built sustainability and incentives to lengthen working lives, and many policies have been put in place since to extend working lives. However, recent reforms to boost basic pensions and to introduce a new tax-funded income pension supplement go in the direction of reducing incentives to remain in work for many older workers and weaken the long-term sustainability of the system. The stated purpose of these changes was “to ensure a reasonable standard of living for pensioners who receive a low level of earnings-related pensions”. However, on average, Swedish pensioners are relatively well-off compared internationally and compared to younger generations in Sweden. Sweden should therefore change direction by holding back the uprating of tax-funded pensions for some time to come.

Relaxing strict rent controls, which would improve labour mobility and increase the supply of rental dwellings, should be considered. Waiting times for rental housing can stretch from years to decades in major cities in Sweden, perpetuating the scarcity of rental options. This pushes those with limited queuing time and limited means to buy housing, particularly youth and immigrants, into overcrowded housing, sublet or black markets with significantly higher rents. Greater flexibility in rental housing would facilitate the matching of skills with job vacancies and boost productivity by more efficiently allocating talent to where it is most needed.

Further reading:          

OECD Economic Survey of Sweden (2023), OECD Economic Surveys: Sweden 2023, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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