Sweden is viewed as an egalitarian utopia by outsiders, but reality is complex. In some ways Sweden has less social equality than the United States. While the American upper class is largely meritocratic, the upper class in Sweden are still mostly defined by birth.
Historically, Sweden, Norway and Finland alone in Europe never developed Feudalism (Denmark was closer to continental Europe). The Nordic nobility was a small share of the population and not as powerful as the nobility in continental Europe, though still influential. The upper class in Sweden today consists of the nobility and of wealthy bourgeoisie families that socially merged with them. Wealthy bourgeois families live in the same neighborhoods and have adopted similar behavior and identity as the nobility. Despite long Social Democratic dominance they remain a coherent social group, with a distinct and recognizable accent, way of dressing, values etc.
Belonging to the upper-class is not defined merely by wealth, depending more on blood. Just as in historical times, a Nouveau riche member of the middle class will not automatically be accepted as a member of the upper-classes, unless they actively adapt their behavior and are accepted by the upper-classes socially.
The upper classes in Sweden retain a disproportional hold on wealth and power. The formal nobility in Sweden constitutes around 0.2% of the population. A couple of years ago I looked through the list of the wealthiest Swedes. Fully 10% of the richest Swedes are members of the nobility. By contrast not a single one of the richest Swedes was a non-European immigrant. Of Sweden’s prime-ministers Sweden during the modern era 20% belonged to the nobility.
Sweden is known for income equality. Increasingly, studies also point to Sweden as a country characterized by high intergenerational mobility of income. Income-distribution and wealth distribution are however not the same thing. What some may not know is that wealth-inequality is relatively high in Sweden. The top one percent own around 35% of wealth in the United States. In Sweden, because of extensive tax evasion, the number is harder to calculate. When including estimates of wealth held outside of Sweden, Roine and Waldenström estimate that the top one percent richest Swedes own 25-40% of total wealth, not far from American inequality levels, and increasing more rapidly.
At the same time, the intergenerational mobility of top wealth is chokingly low. A recent studyfound that a astonishing 80-90% of inequality of top wealth is transmitted to the next generation in Sweden!
According to one studythe share of the richest Swedes who inherited their wealth is around, 2/3 with 1/3 being entrepreneurs, while in the United States it was the opposite, with 1/3 of the wealthiest inherited their wealth while around 2/3 are entrepreneurs.
Thus while the Swedish middle class is large and has a compressed earning distribution, at the very top you have a small number of aristocratic families controlling much of the wealth. Mobility into this group is rare, probably rares than it is in the United States. One reason are stronger informal class-barriers, merely earning wealth is not enough to be accepted a member of the aristocratic upper-class. Another more interesting reason may be the unintended effect of welfare-state economic policies.
During the era of Social Democratic dominance, they wondered how to deal with wealth inequality. The dilemma facing the Social Democrats was this: The upper-class business families did a very good job managing Swedish export industry, the key to Sweden’s wealth. This is especially true for the Wallenberg family, the leading industrial family in Sweden, controlling amongst others ABB, Ericsson, Electrolux, Atlas Copco, SKF, AstraZeneca and Saab and doing an excellent job.
The Social Democrats decided to accept the unequal distribution of assets, but simply make these assets worth less using punitive high tax rates. Because of high inflation capital taxes were often 80-100%.
The upper-class families still owned most of private industry, but because of taxes those assets were simply not worth much. Paradoxically the high taxes and capital regulations which prevented foreign investments seem to have helped freeze the asset distribution into place, with the share of wealth owned by the rich being fairly constant between 1970 to the 1990s.