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(Not written by me) The fifteen-year-old climate activist who is demanding a new kind of politics By Masha Gessen October 2, 2018 Greta Thunberg’s protest outside of Sweden’s parliament building has made climate change a topic of that country’s daily conversation. Sometimes the world makes so little sense that the only thing to do is engage in civil disobedience—even in a country as attached to its rules and regulations as Sweden is. Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has been protesting for more than a month. Before the country’s parliamentary election on September 9th, she went on strike and sat on the steps of the parliament building, in Stockholm, every day during school hours for three weeks. Since the election, she has returned to school for four days a week; she now spends her Fridays on the steps of parliament. She is demanding that the government undertake a radical response to climate change. She told me that a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school. Her parents think so, too, she said—that she should really go to school, though she is right to protest. Thunberg’s parents are Svante Thunberg, an actor, and Malena Ernman, a very well-known opera singer. Ernman has published a book in which she described her family’s struggle with her two daughters’ special needs: both Greta and her younger sister, Beata, have been diagnosed with autism, A.D.H.D., and other conditions. In part because of her mother’s fame and the publicity that surrounded the publication of her book, Greta’s protest serves a dual purpose. It not only calls attention to climate policy, as she intended, but it also showcases the political potential of neurological difference. “I see the world a bit different, from another perspective,” she explained to me, in English. “I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.” Thunberg developed her special interest in climate change when she was nine years old and in the third grade. “They were always talking about how we should turn off lights, save water, not throw out food,” she told me. “I asked why and they explained about climate change. And I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and people wouldn’t be talking about anything else. But this wasn’t happening.” Turnberg has an uncanny ability to concentrate, which she also attributes to her autism. “I can do the same thing for hours,” she said. Or, as it turns out, for years. She began researching climate change and has stayed on the topic for six years. She has stopped eating meat and buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. In 2015, she stopped flying on airplanes, and a year later, her mother followed suit, giving up an international performing career. The family has installed solar batteries and has started growing their own vegetables on an allotment outside the city. To meet me in central Stockholm, Thunberg and her father rode their bikes for about half an hour; the family has an electric car that they use only when necessary. Sweden prides itself on having some of the most progressive climate legislation in the world: policies adopted over the last couple of years aim to make Sweden “the first fossil-free welfare state in the world.” But there was relatively little discussion of climate policy in the lead-up to the September election, even after Sweden was hit with an unprecedented heat wave and catastrophic fires in July. Karin Bäckstrand, a climate-policy researcher at Stockholm University, told me that climate policy wasn’t an election issue precisely because a broad national consensus exists. “Everyone except the [far right] Swedish Democrats agree that we should become fossil-free,” she said. Thunberg calls bullshit on the consensus. In our conversation, she pointed out that, despite Sweden’s progressive legislation and the scientific consensus that rich countries must cut their emissions by fifteen per cent a year, in Sweden actual emissions had gone up 3.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year. She has written a piece called “Sweden is not a role model,” in which she points out that even the best-laid plans to address climate change make no attempt to look beyond the year 2050. “By then I will, in the best case, not even have lived half my life,” she wrote. “What happens next?” It’s true that emissions have risen this year, Bäckstrand said, because Sweden is experiencing an economic boom. On the other hand, the country has cut its emissions by twenty-six per cent since 1990, even while its economy has grown. In just ten years, Sweden has increased its use of renewable sources of energy by twelve per cent. The country is building the world’s first fossil-free steel plants. (To put this in context, Bäckstrand noted that she had just returned from San Francisco, where more than twenty thousand people, including the representatives of dozens of national governments, attended the Global Climate Action Summit, but no one from the Trump Administration attended; “Trump didn’t even tweet about it!” Bäckstrand said. Bäckstrand added that Thunberg’s “voice is needed, because until the fires and the drought, climate change was priority number eight for Swedes. She is arguing that it should be at the top, and she is right.” Thunberg’s strike has received extensive coverage in Sweden; for the time being, she is a household name, and climate change is a topic of daily conversation. Thunberg’s is a voice of unaccommodating clarity that reminds me of Soviet-era dissidents. I suspect that some of them were also on the spectrum, which in their case meant acting irrationally in the framework of the Soviet system—risking their lives to make the doomed demand that the country act in accordance with its written laws and declared ideals. Thunberg smiled in recognition when I told her this. “I can become very angry when I see things that are wrong,” she said. On a recent class trip to a museum exhibit on climate change, for example, she noticed that some figures in the show—statistics on the carbon footprint of meat production, for example—were wrong. “I became very angry, but I’m quiet, so I just went to the exit and sat there by the doors. I didn’t say anything until people asked me.” In general she prefers action to conversation. In undertaking her school strike, she was inspired by the protests staged by American high-school students in response to the Parkland shooting this year—Thunberg’s sit-in is also a walkout. When Thunberg is at her now-famous post outside of parliament, people come by to talk to her and bring her food. This has had an unexpected effect: Thunberg, who generally eats the same things every day, has tried new food. She surprised herself by doing this, and by finding that she likes falafel and noodles. In the weeks since the election, the Swedish political conversation has centered on topics far from climate change: the main centrist parties finished in a dead heat, making a far-right party, the Swedish Democrats, which came in third, a potential power broker. Formerly rote procedures such as choosing the speaker of parliament and appointing cabinet members have come to overshadow any policy discussion. Thunberg is peculiarly uninterested in this, though. “I think the election didn’t matter,” she told me. “The climate is not going to collapse because some party got the most votes. The politics that’s needed to prevent the climate catastrophe—it doesn’t exist today. We need to change the system, as if we were in crisis, as if there were a war going on.” Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, The Future Is History: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia which won the National Book Award in 2017. Source: The New Yorker
(Not written by me) Sweden's surprising rule for time off The country's unique leave of absence system helps workers launch their own business. Can it be replicated elsewhere? By Maddy Savage 6 February 2019 Jana Cagin had never thought about running her own company until she and her fiancé had “one of those lightbulb moments” while out shopping for a new sofa at Ikea in a Stockholm suburb. They felt that the range of legs available was too limited. After scouring the internet failing to find suitable alternatives, they came up with the concept of developing their own brand of replacement furniture parts, designed to help buyers put an artistic stamp on new flat-pack furniture purchases or ‘upcycle’ existing home staples. “We were just struck by this idea and it really made us so passionate,” she explains. The couple began by running the venture in their spare time. But according to Cagin, it was being able to take a leave of absence from her job as an organisational psychologist that really enabled things to get off the ground. “We started finding suppliers, getting a lot of press, starting building the website,” she explains. The company was also accepted into an acceleration programme for startups, which offered coaching, workshops and mentoring. “If I were to work during that time I wouldn’t have been able to join, and it really helped us to believe in our idea.” Meanwhile, knowing that she could return to her old role if things didn’t pan out alleviated some of the financial risk, especially since her partner was a freelancer in the creative industries. “I’d never seen myself as an entrepreneur, so being able to have that kind of security and something to fall back on, I think that played a pretty big role.” She didn’t go back to her old job. Six years after that “lightbulb moment”, which happened when Cagin was just 31, the couple’s e-commerce business now offers decorative door knobs and cupboard panels, as well as legs for a range of different furniture types. It operates in 30 countries and has six full-time employees. A legally enshrined right While not all new companies become so successful, Cagin’s experience taking time off from fixed employment is far from unique in Sweden. For the last two decades, full-time workers with permanent jobs have had the right to take a six-month leave of absence to launch a company (or alternatively, to study or to look after a relative). Bosses can only say no if there are crucial operational reasons they can’t manage without a staff member, or if the new business is viewed as direct competition. Employees are expected to be able to return in the same position as previously. “To my knowledge this is the only country that offers a legally-enshrined right to take a leave of absence for entrepreneurship,” explains Claire Ingram Bogusz, apost-doctoral researcher in entrepreneurship and information systems at Stockholm School of Economics. “You meet a lot of people who’ve got permission from their employer to start up something in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with their employment, and once that business is up and running, then they take a leave of absence to see if they can actually make a go of it,” she says. “It’s very common, particularly among highly-skilled entrepreneurs who build high-tech firms.” Max Friberg, 31, who runs a software platform, is one of them. He chose to take a leave of absence from a global consulting firm rather than quit his job, even though he had been working on the project in his spare time for over a year and says he was confident his idea would take off. For him, losing the competitive advantage and “social status” he’d worked for years to achieve was as much of a concern as financial insecurity. The possibility of unpaid leave greatly eased some of those worries. “I had this fantastic job. I had been working very hard throughout university to get it and while at the job to keep it and to advance,” he explains. “I was questioning myself: ‘am I doing something crazy?’ But feeling that I could go back took quite a bit out of that scariness.” The secret to innovation? Sweden, with a population of just 10 million, has developed a reputation as one of the most innovative countries in Europe in recent years. The most commonly-cited reasons its start-up scene has grown so quickly include strong digital infrastructure, a culture of collaboration and affordable private unemployment insurance, which provides a larger social safety net than in many countries. Measuring exactly how much the right to unpaid leave has contributed to this is tricky. While the trend – particularly in the tech scene – has been observed by academics, unions and employers alike, there are no national databases that break down how many people registered to take a leave of absence start a business. But what the figures confirm is that rising demand for all kinds of leaves of absence (including paid parental leave) coincides with growing numbers of Swedes starting their own companies. In 2017, 175,000 25- to 54-year-olds on leave were registered, compared to 163,000 in 2007, according to Statistics Sweden. The registration office for Swedish companies, Bolagsverket, says 48,542 limited companies registered in 2017, up from 27,994 in 2007. So what can the rest of the world learn from Sweden’s unpaid leave system? According to Claire Ingram Bogusz, the trend for taking leave to start a business needs to be viewed in the context of the Nordic country’s notoriously strict employment laws. These have traditionally made it harder for bosses to fire staff than in many countries. She argues that it might encourage some employees to stay put once they have the security of a substantive role. “People don’t easily relinquish that [permanent] job once they have it,” she says. “It’s maybe analogous to owning a house or an apartment. Once you own it, you don’t just give it up easily.” Samuel Engblom, head of policy for the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees, explains that the government, unions and employers in Sweden have supported the right to take time off as “a way of promoting mobility in the labour market”. “Most employees hesitate to leave a job that they perceive as secure for something as insecure as starting a business,” he says. “Maybe it’s quite a Swedish view – I mean, you could promote entrepreneurship by making it more profitable, and we do that to some extent, but you can also promote entrepreneurship by making it less insecure.” Ting Xu, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia whose work focuses on entrepreneurial finance, argues that increasing the right to unpaid leave could play a crucial role in fuelling entrepreneurship, even in countries with much more flexible labour markets. He cites a 2016 study by Failure Aversion Change in Europe (FACE) Entrepreneurship, a European project designed to help would-be tech entrepreneurs break the barriers generated by fear of failure. It found that while financial risk was the top concern, career risk came a close second. “The fear of losing a stable professional career if their start-up fails is a major thing holding many people back,” he argues. “Many countries subsidise financing to entrepreneurs. However, reducing career risk can be just as important, and is often ignored by policy makers.” Although his own research focuses on parental leave, rather than unpaid leave, it provides rare empirical data to back up this idea. Xu was part of a team that looked at a reform that extended job-protected parental leave in Canada from a few months to a full year in 2001. They found that women eligible for more time off were more likely to be entrepreneurs five years later that those who gave birth before the change. “This result is strong evidence showing that when we remove career risk it can actually spur entrepreneurship,” he concludes. Are there any down sides? Some observers argue it might be more difficult for employers outside Sweden to allow workers to return to their old roles after taking time off to run a business. These workers could face discrimination when it comes to future career prospects or salary. However in Sweden, this kind if prejudice is against the law. “For someone to have gone out and tried something new and had that opportunity and come back isn’t actually seen negatively. It’s seen neutrally at best, and probably even positively, because then the person has said, ‘oh no, this job is what is actually for me’,” explains Ingram Bogusz. She argues that Sweden’s entrenched focus on work-life balance is a “huge contributing factor”, which might not be relevant in other places. “In Sweden, people are expected to have a balance in their employment – not just in terms of balancing their personal lives, but also balancing other things that are of importance to them or mean personal growth for them. Starting a new business could be [part of] that.” Jessica Petterson is among those currently making the most of this approach. The 30-year-old is wrapping up a period of unpaid leave that she’s spent launching a virtual assistant product for charities. She has decided to return to her permanent job at a non-profit organisation, and to pursue her entrepreneurship more slowly on the side. “I don’t make enough from my company to support myself, and I want to buy an apartment quite soon. So that’s why I need to go back to my old job to get a steady salary every month,” she explains. “They [my managers] are really happy with me going back. They’ve given me some other projects to work on so that I won’t feel as ‘stuck’ as I was before.” However, Samuel Engblom at the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees points out that while many employers share this positive attitude toward unpaid leave, others can struggle with the administrative and financial challenges linked to covering a worker’s responsibilities while they are taking time off. “For the employer, it means losing someone who knows the job. Especially in situations where there is a lack of skilled workers in a field, this of course can be problematic,” he says. He suggests these challenges could be exaggerated in countries with less stable economies than Sweden. A new future? Of course, both the advantages and challenges of unpaid leave are only relevant when employees have permanent positions in the first place. While the vast majority of Swedes are in stable jobs, there has been a shift towards temporary employment and the gig economy in recent years, which has largely affected younger workers. In 2017, almost 50% of 16- to 24-year-olds and 18% of 25- to 34-year-olds were in temporary work, up from 44% and 14% in 2009 respectively. “It is a problem that Sweden faces as well as many other countries in the world: this polarisation of people with permanent jobs and those who don’t,” says Ingram Bogartz. “For gig economy workers and freelancers... leaves of absence don’t actually affect them, and it creates additional distance.” Swedish lawmakers are monitoring the trend closely. A government committee was recently asked to investigate how more security could be provided for these kinds of workers. Meanwhile, the right to unpaid leave for permanent staff shows no sign of being revoked. Several unions have even struck collective agreements with employers that expand workers’ rights to unpaid leave by offering them 12 months off to try starting a business, instead of the standard requirement of six months. What is vital for all Swedish entrepreneurs to remember, according to Ingram Bogartz, is that whether or not they have the right to unpaid leave, starting a business remains risky. “The general downside of moving from permanent employment to entrepreneurship is true here in Sweden as in anywhere else. You go from a stable [job] and often quite decent salary to unstable and probably a much lower amount of money,” she explains. “But a leave of absence means you can have the best of both worlds: the security of a job that’s not going anywhere, and time off to pursue what’s important to you.” Source: BBC Capital