Interviews

Prof Robert Erikson: try to pursue what is important for you in life

In 1988, there was an important United Nations conference on Quality of Life (held in Helsinki and organised by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Senn). I think this has been a kind of milestone. One of the contributors was Prof Robert Erikson from Sweden.
Since I know Sweden quite well, even lived there for a while, I also want to look at the high quality life of the Swedes. I was eager to hear the view of Prof Robert Erikson. So I went to Stockholm and had an interview with him at the University. Very interesting. Many insights. I learned so much and not only about the quality of life of the Swedes. Above all, I’m very impressed by his life time work on Quality of Life.

 

Can you tell a little bit about yourself? You did a tremendous job in quality of life.
In 1968 and the late seventies, there was a low income commission in Sweden put up by the government. This commission had to describe the position in Sweden in three terms: the income of the Swedish population, the consumption resources and the level of living. For that purpose with did a survey on the level of living in 1968. Which was a random sample of the Swedish adult population. About 6.000 persons were interviewed. We have then followed up this study, as a panel, five times: in 1974, 1981, 1991, 2000 and 2010. During the years, I have been involved in this survey in different forms. I was working with it, and I was in charge of it in 1991. Then I became head of the social science research council here in Sweden and I only was involved from a distance. If you talk about quality of life and different writings, the last one we wrote is this one and I wrote the history. This is the report from very last survey, the last wave of 2010.

If you want to put me down, on a pin, I have been heavily involved on research of social mobility. And I wrote a major book on social mobility together with John Goldthorpe.

The third one, if you could say, is the inequality of education. I was in charge of a governmental commission on education. We published that in 1993. That has also followed up in quite some research.

You can say these are the three areas in which I have done most of my research. Doing more or less minor things in other areas. But these are the three areas in which I have done research during the years.

 

When we focus on Quality of Life – you did this survey six times – what kind of patterns, what kind of developments do you see?
On the one hand it is quite clear that the general position of people in this term has improved. We have been looking at social differences in mortality and one of the major changes is that health has improved in the sense that the length of the life has increased very much. There are still differences between population groups in mortality. The main development to some extent is rather unfortunate: mental health is going down. Particular among young women which I think is very bad. In other respects it is quite clear. In 1968, housing was a big issue. It was not a big issue in 2000. It is becoming a big issue again for various reasons. Partly because too few new apartments have been built.

Particularly here in Stockholm (HB Stockholm is one of the fastest growing cities in the world)?
Yes, it is very difficult here.

The Swedish development is not so different from the rest of Europe. The other thing is that you have this tremendous increase in the amount of education of the population. This holds one of the major changes we should do more research on and that is what has happened, and this happens all over Europe: women are overtaking men in education. This is remarkable. I would guess that in nearly all major universities around Western-Europe you will find more women students than men. That is a fantastic change as compared to exactly the time when we did the first survey. So this is why it is interesting: it has been observed but there is no good explanation why it has happened. It is a very interesting question.

This development in Sweden has nothing to do with our research, but with the main development in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies of education and qualification. It shows that Sweden has done very badly. There is a lot of discussion about why it has happened. It is quite clear that the quality of schooling and the quality of knowledge in primary and secondary school has gone down. You have these PISA studies which are done by the OECD (HB world-wide organization focused on the improvement of economics and well-being): in the first round we were at the top and now, at the last round, we were below the middle. This is very bad. It is horrible.

This is considering the next generation.
Yes exactly.

It is quite nice that you say that women are overtaking the men in education. This would imply they will take in higher positions?
That is probable. They have a much better chance.

It will change society.
This is why I think this is a very interesting development. So, in that sense I think, as I said, we have done this as a panel study, we have been following single individuals over their life course. To same extent, we can try to sort out what happens first.

 

Quality of life can be good, you can have the capabilities, but you also have to do it. The internal motivation is extremely important. Because this decides how successful someone is. Success is perhaps not the right word in Quality of Life.
There are several interpretations of quality of life. I don’t think there is a basic. That you can say that one is just better for every purpose. You have to think a little what is useful. What I think, which is already very much in the book of Nussbaum and Sen (HB of the 1988 conference on quality of life), is that quality of life is the ability of the individuals to steer their own life according to their own interests and values. That connects both the research that we have done in Sweden and the theories of Sen that it leads you to another idea of freedom of action. You can do what you prefer to do according to your own values and interests. But it is not so simple to come down to the empirical way – for a couple of reasons – the most important one: we have no good theory of saying these are the determinants of this possibility to act. There are various resources of various kinds. Sen himself, I must say, is very unclear on this issue. He in principle says it has to be decided in each specific context. That is, should we say, a very elevated position. That is of very little use, if you want to do something.

You want to know as a person how to steer from one space to another space. How can you go from one to another?
Exactly. The interesting case is what we did in the early part was to list a series of components: health, education, income, employment/working, etc. If you take the Stiglitz commission, the one appointed by President Sarkozy, then Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi who produced the report, they come very close to the same (HB the list of 8 components from this report is: health, education, personal activities, political voice and governance, social connections, environmental conditions, personal insecurity, and economic insecurity). The interesting case is that it is rather improbable that the Stiglitz commission has read Sten Johansson (what he wrote in ’79). But they are very much the same. They are very close. There is really no theory that says these are the things you should look at.

Is it gut feeling?
It is common sense. If you look at what has been done, particularly in the seventies, in quite a number of central statistical agencies, and they also came up with very much the same thing.

But motivation is not in this list? Isn’t that strange?
That’s right.

The components span up the space of possibilities, but how you fill the space depends on your motivation?
Of course this is an interesting question. What you can say, whether you have the options and possibilities or whether you do it. On the other hand, in that sense, motivation comes in through the backdoor. It is like this: the components can be regarded as resources. But the components are, to some extent, also outcomes. In the sense that we cannot really decide which the most important resources are. The resources maybe different in different contexts. To some extent it depends exactly on the context. Sen has an example with people in wheelchairs: the demand is not only on having a wheelchair but also on having the surroundings so you are able to use it. In that sense, you could say, if you look at the outcomes, that is what people have achieved. To that extent, to some extent, it at least depends on whether they want to achieve and they do something or not. To some extent, I would say, motivation comes in through the backdoor.

 

I have some questions about how the quality of life is in Sweden. Sweden has always been a kind of frontrunner. What kind of tendency do you see in Sweden on quality of life. Is it an issue here? Is it important?
It is obviously an issue since the government, last year, came with a task to me to investigate. Actually it was the previous government, the conservative government. In 2014 they gave me the job and ask me to do it. The changing government last year made no difference with this respect. The incoming government also said they are very interested in this. We will see what they will do in the end. I don’t know whether they will do anything. The situation is now such that they think of other things. The present situation in Sweden is very pressed. Because the very large inflow of refugees.

That directly also effects the quality of life? Of those refugees but also on the Swedes themselves?
Of course. This is one of the things. We have a more populist party who says stop the inflow of immigrants. I think in one respect I’m willing to say they have a point and that is the whole situation in society will become more unstable. People will wonder what is going on. And we supply to a very large support to this group. I think for some of the more extreme idealists this could be no problem, but I think it is a clear problem. It is a problem when society changes. It is a clear problem since they have found no way reasonable ways to integrate them into society. The unemployment rate among the newly incoming ones is very high and leads not only that those who come in are in problem but also leads that people who are already here wonder what is going on and should we support these people, etc. All these things. You also have it in Holland.

Yes that’s right. But I heard that there are about 2.000 refugees per day coming in here?
For some reason, I don’t know why, per capita we clearly have the most. Germany takes in the most numerically, but per capita we take the most in, much more than Germany.

There was as an article in the newspaper by the head of the young conservatives and she wants us just to open. For the obvious reason that we then cannot keep the welfare state. People have different views on how to act to the refugees. Because they have other agendas that they hope that they can achieve. A clear case is the libertarians, they hope that if we just get many of them in, because the Swedish welfare state as it looks, cannot be kept up. To some extent, I’m afraid, that’s in anyway the case. There are really pressures on the welfare state.

Because the shift of the population to a higher average age, the ageing?
Exactly. I would say that, so far, in this respect it has not been very problematic, we have had until about now we have a rather advantage age distribution. That will change very quickly the coming years to come.

Sweden is a tremendous good country to live in: nature, health,…
Well, I spent half a year in Holland, I was at the Institute of Advanced Study in Wassenaar, early 2000. I enjoyed Holland but I must admit that it is very tight with people.

It is so overpopulated?
Yes, it is. We have quite a number of Dutch people coming here for, and I agree, this is a major advantage in Sweden, we still have lots of open space.

I stayed at the B&B of my ex-wife in the area of Småland, near Växjö, which is in the forest and it was amazing that it is there so quiet. You don’t have that anymore in The Netherlands, you always can hear traffic from somewhere. It is such a high quality of life to have this silence.
In that respect, it is one of actually one of the things that I have taken up here, that we didn’t take up before, and that is measurements on environmental quality.

It is also important for the Swedes to have balance between work and recreation. I think they are much more focused on that than the people in Holland.
I think, shall we say it like this,… the role of the church in Sweden has gone down very much. A very large number of Swedes are in one way or another related to nature. This is an important aspect. In the quality of life perspective, if you look at in the way you want to determine to live your life: nature is apparently one of the outcomes. A very large number of Swedes have summerhouses. They live in the nature in the summer. Certainly not all, quite a lot of people prefer to go to the Mediterranean, but quite a number of us prefer to stay here.

Do you see a difference between the city and rural life?
This is of course an issue. Although, if I take myself, if I take my car and drive for half an hour then I am out in a forest. Where I meet no one. Even if you live in a big city or in the larger cities in the country, it is no problem to get out. On the hand, it is a present political issue. The people in the rural areas claim they have been forgotten.

That’s what I also hear from my ex-wife and her husband.
I don’t think they are right but that’s when you look at it from the city.

I had a discussion with them on this and it is about infrastructure: it is very good in the city and there is a lot of work in the city, but in the rural areas it is much more difficult for the people to make a living there.
That is of course true. On the other hand, if you put it exactly in terms of choice or aspects of the living, I think that people living in a rural area – not all, but there are some – they claim the advantages of living in a rural area. They have more space, it is more silent, etc. To some extent they want to have the same facilities as in the large cities. But the rural life goes with a cost. But, there are developments that are very problematic in the rural areas. What happens is that the postal office wants to move,… So, they lose a lot of the basic infrastructure  and that can make it very problematic. You need a kind of societal service, everywhere. I think it should be as a lift in a multi- storey house, you should just have it. In that respect, I think they are right.

What kind of quality of life tendencies do you see here in Sweden? Ruut Veenhoven says in his Quality of Life comparison between Japan with The Netherlands: more people are focusing on health. It used to be in de sixties and seventies more on income, and now, if you span up a space, they care more about health. Do you see trends like that here in Sweden?
I don’t think I’m in position to say anything serious in this respect. I have no impression that this is the case. But, it’s just a superficial impression. Ok, health is important but I don’t think it has gone up more as the central issue. Safety has gone up.

The Swedes, wonderful people, but also a little bit to themselves.
That’s true.

There is a kind of danger that they may constrict too much.
You are right in the sense that Swedes prefer to stay inside, that’s true. Why it is so, I don’t know. One thing that happened in the history is that in the late 18th century, early 19th century, the government pushed for more efficient agriculture. We had major land reforms, in the sense that before people inherited the land and they split up the land more and more, in small pieces. E.g. four brothers inherited the land and they got one piece each. You split it up. In the late 18th, early 19th century, the government pushed through reforms that you got larger units. So, people lived much more isolated from each other. They didn’t lived in villages any longer. This is sheer speculation but it might be the reason why people live by themselves, to a much larger extent. The positive effect was agriculture that production increased. A very famous bishop and author, in the early 19th century, said that it was the peace, the vaccine and the potatoes. So there was a major improvement in health and the standard of living in the first years of the 19th century. It is not improbable that these land reforms have something to do with it. The product rate increased in agriculture.

What kind of drivers do you see that the government is doing now to improve quality of life?
That is an interesting issue. For the moment, the government is mostly looking at the refugees and they don’t know what they should do.

But half a year ago?
The major aim of the government is to increase employment. Unemployment should be pushed out. To be critical, I think that so far, they don’t have a very good idea to achieve this goal. The goal seems very excellent, but… other interests are coming in, the question of the insiders in the labour market and the outsiders. The interest of the insiders is, to some extent, not letting the outsiders in.

And of course, health is always an essential issue. Apart from the development on mental health, which is problematic, otherwise, the health development in general is very positive.

About mental health: my father has Alzheimer, but that’s not the kind of mental health that you are referring to?
No, it is more exactly about depression, being disturbed, etc. Alzheimer is a problem straight over the field. One of the consequences of an ageing population is an increase in many forms of dementia. In that sense, I have the impression, it is still the case that most of the people who are hit by dementia on the whole have a rather good support system. They are a lot of places, like nursery homes, and there is a lot of support, this I think also works rather well, that people can get help in their homes.

It is interesting what you said about mental health in relation to women and that they are more vulnerable to this.
One possibility, sheer speculation, is that – we have a very high employment rate among women, I think one of the highest in the world – men take now more responsibility at home. However, it is still the case that women take the major responsibility at home. So, in that sense, women come into a double pressure of both doing well at the job and doing well at home. If you go out on the Stockholm streets, you see a remarkable number of men pushing prams. What is happening is that the amount of work in the household has gone down. We saw this in our study. The amount of household work has decreased quite a lot. To large extent, I’m certain, thanks to the technical developments. It is easier to do the washing, etc. But, it is of course still the case that the women take the major responsibility. Again this is more personal opinion, I think the question is not only how do you share the work, but who is in charge. If you are in charge, you are still more pressed than that you just have to do a couple of things. And I think, the women still have to make much more the decisions, what shall we do, what shall we have, what for dinner, etc.

And what are your own recommendations to the government?
Let’s put it this way. We have had surveys and Statistics Sweden has run these surveys. What has happened is that the European Community came with the demands on the EU-SILC (HB: EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions). So, Statistics Sweden decided we put the questions from the EU-SILC in the Swedish survey. Which means that the Swedish survey became less and less governed by what we may have believe here are the important aspects. So our aspect is split those two services up. Do the EU-SILC as we have to do according to the EU regulations. Do it as a separate service. And set up a more proper service, where you measure all these various aspects and that you can do it over time to see how things change, like in health, knowledge, employment,… My idea here is that you have to do it on the individual level and you should measure the various aspects simultaneously. For the reason that it is not enough to look at the averages and the average change. We need to look at distributions, we need to look at differences between various social groups. Not only men and women, but also different social classes. Or look at comparisons at different age groups, etc. If we have now measured health and income, we need to know to what extent do these aspects go together. Is it the same people who have low incomes and bad health? To some extent, we know that it is. But what are the developments? How does this change? You can only find this out with a survey and measurements on the same persons.

How is the Quality of Life in Sweden compared to other countries?
I think on the whole we are still fairly well off. It depends a little of what you look at. Because the average consumption standard in Sweden is high, but not particularly high. But if you look at the average on the income distribution and you look at the lowest 30% then they are very good. Because the distribution is more compressed. In the upper part of the income distribution it is less well of that in many other countries.

And the younger ones? From the age of 18, who are getting on the labour market, do they get a job?
We have a fairly high youth unemployment. If we compare it with Germany where it is much lower. On the other hand, the youth unemployment rate is not so simple to interpret. For the reason that it is it is measured according to EU standard and then you get a lot of those who are in education. They also want to earn some extra money and then they report themselves that they are willing to take a job. And then they are seen as unemployed. This makes it difficult. Even so, you can put it two ways. Are they in education because they can’t get a job? Or do they just want to have some extra money while they are in education? It is not at all that obvious. However. this is a problem and it is observed as a problem. One tries to do something about it. But, perhaps not enough. There is a difficulty for the young ones to get a good position on the labour market.

In other ways, they seem to do quite well. In terms of forming partnerships and marriages and having children: it works quite well. Actually, I think that is one of the – in terms of having control over the life – major achievements of the Swedish welfare state: Swedish women both want to work and have children. We have a fairly high fertility rate. It slightly below 2. This is precisely in the quality of life perspective, being able to control your life. More than in other countries. They don’t have to choose between a career and family. It is possible to combine the two. As I said, in terms of quality of life this is a major achievement.

 

Coming more back to the personal aspect. I already did some interviews. One with Erik van Laar, the managing director where I worked, and he said indeed: control and then you have peace of mind. This is of major importance to him. That’s also what I see in one of your documents. On the other hand, I was in Japan and interviewed a Buddhist priest, Kurt Kübli Gensō, and he said you have to live in the moment. These are totally opposite views of each other. Perhaps not opposite, but they have different directions. What do you think of it?
To become a Buddhist priest, you must to have a way of mind that most of us don’t have. I can say it like this: if you have a state of mind that you are truly happy with, that you have a peace mind: excellent! I know too little about Buddhism, but, as I see it, one of the central aspects of life is that you do things, you construct things, you act. Like building a house,… writing a report to the government, or whatever. It seems to me, as I understand Buddhism, this is not a central aspect of it. This makes a major difference. I’m certainly one who is on the acting site.

I’m also goal oriented. But I also know that when you live in the moment, you also achieve a lot.
I have no problem with living in the moment. Part of living in the moment is to do something for exterior. Certainly, it may be a very important aspect of living in the moment that you can do something, that you believe in the result of something. I have no objection about living in the moment. The question is what are the important aspects of the moment.

So the two views are no opposites?
Precisely.

One aspect of living in the moment is of course social relations, family, friends,… It turns out that, for instance, people who live together have clearly lower mortality rates than people who live alone. The causal chain is not completely obvious, but I would say it is rather probable that it is to your advantage to have social support of various kinds. The medical researchers are fairly strong on this issue. I would agree. That you have the support, you have the opportunity to live together with someone you can always rely on in various aspects of life. It is very important.

In one of your papers on telling students to come to the university and work here, you write that people who live the longest life have a marital status and work at the university.
That’s right. The first thing that I could show is that those with a Doctor title have a much lower mortality rate. Even better than those that have a long university education. So I could say to my students, it is very good for you to take your Doctor. My interpretation, I could not prove, is to compare people who have a long university education but don’t go into research: they earn more money, but live a shorter time. And my believe is that we here (HB at the research centre) control much more our lives. In that sense it is a fantastic job. You decide for yourself what you want to do and you can do it. On this living together, you also find very clear results that people who live together have lower mortality rates. This is related to what we talked about before about who puts the food on the table at home: when you look at the mortality rates depending on your own education and your partner’s education, it turn out that the woman’s education is more important for the man’s surviving rate than his own. It is better for you to have a woman with a higher education. For a woman: her husband’s class and income are more important than her own. My interpretation is exactly that women have much more control and influence on family life, in terms of food and a lot of other things. That is important for our health.

On the other hand the women can get stressed.
Exactly, that can be.

To come back to the point before. My ex-wife is now married to a man who is not goal-oriented, he lives in the moment. So we discussed and I asked how do you that, you have to plan your day. And he said I don’t have to plan my day (he is self-employed). His quality of life, according what he says himself, is extremely high.
I have no reason not to believe that. However, as self-employed you have to do a lot of planning.

I’m myself self-employed and I know.
As self-employed you have to plan a lot. My way is simpler, I just sit here and the money comes in to my bank account.

It is very intriguing, something is pointing to control and not too much control. Something in the space what quality of life brings. Also considering with the example of women who have too much control. Control is a major factor?
It could be. It is not so much control, but the ability to decide what should I do, where I want to go, what is my next step in life. This room is what I think is very important. Classic research, actually based on our survey, shows that in working conditions of people who have a lot of pressure in work but also can decide themselves how to do it: they do quite well. Those who have pressure and have very little control over their work situation: there you find a much worse health. I really believe that this is due to the ability and possibility for yourself to be able to decide. In that sense I can see the advantage of self-employment.

I started to work for myself in 2007. The major difference is in your mind. You still work for a client (‘boss’), but your mind set is totally different. A bit similar as with your job.
The university or the government, whoever it is: I can decide myself because they trust me I do the best in the situation.

 

I also wonder about the impact of technology. Like in the forest of Växjö, they enjoy the silence, but they are not alone, they are connected to the world. On the other, you see the people busy with their smartphones.
It is completely ridiculous. They cannot let these mobile phones go for two seconds, holding it in their hands. I think this an interesting development of what is going on. As I already said, a very important aspect of technology is that it decreased the burden of household work. On the other hand, living in the moment…

You don’t live in the moment when you are all the time busy with your smartphone?
Exactly, it is an aspect of the developing working life, that you have to be attentive every minute. What I mean is this, previously much more than now, people went home and then they were at home and not at work. Now, when they are at home someone calls them on their mobile phone with we have to do this or that, in a sense you have to be attentive 24 hours of the day. There are some psychologists that clearly claim that this a rather unfortunate development.

It is a pressure?
Let’s put it this way, in the old times I got a letter, it came in, I read it, there was a request for answer, I could answer it the next week, that would be quite alright. Now, I get an e-mail and people expect me to answer straight on, after two seconds. I’m exaggerating, but there is an element of truth in it.

We have wonderful tools, but it is not going into a positive direction?
They are both positive and negative. A lot of things become easier. At a lot of locations it is good that you can be in contact with others. In principle all of this can be done due to the mobile phones. On the other hand, there are disadvantages with it as well. On the advantage side, a couple of years ago, there was a group skating on the Baltic and what happened was that a land wind blew and a big piece of ice, on which they were, started moving to the Baltic. They had mobile phones and could call for rescue and were saved. Twenty years ago, they would have just disappeared into the water. There was no way to survive. There are some advantages.

Quality of life to survive. However, there is an influence that is not so good?
There are some elements in it. In a sense, I mostly find it amusing the way people are addicted to the mobile phones. When I go on the subway, a lot of people are there sitting and looking in their phones. Ok, either they may be talking to someone else on the phone, someone is playing a game, it is just a way. The disturbing thing is that people don’t seem to be able to leave it aside.

 

A personal question to you: how is it to dedicate your own life to quality of life?
Let me put it this way. I got into the whole business by more or less a quite random event. I can be personal here. In 1968, I was a lecturer at the university and there was a lot of upheaval at the university. For various reasons, I became a major target by the students. At that time, I was so fed up with university life that I was willing to take any job that I could have. Then I was called up by a researcher in Uppsala, who asked would I be willing to work with the level of living survey and I considered the option for half of a million second… and said yes. Two weeks later, two guys came into my office at the university and asked if I would be willing to talk to them for a while. So I said well sit down and we talked for half an hour and then they offered me a job. And I would have taken it if I hadn’t had already taken one. If it would have been in the reversed order of time, I would have become probably much richer but less happier. Because they offered me a job in a consulting firm. So, it is a complete fluke, when you ask how I did develop my life.

If I may say so, the wonder is that you wanted to improve your own quality of life, because it was not good at that moment, and they you got the offer for those jobs.
In that sense, it is rather the case, I came into the area (HB of quality of life). And then, typically in this field – in most others as well – if you are in it, you work on it, it becomes more interesting, you see all the aspects, you work more and more on it. It is a path dependence, when you have started in it than you… I found it was very interesting. Some of the other areas, the question of social mobility, I was already as a student interested in it. This (HB the area of quality of life) came more by, as I said, by a random event. Ok, random, this guy in Uppsala off course asked me because we had contact before and he knew about where I was in interested. I was approached to research and study. As I said, the devotion comes out it. You work with it and it comes more and more interesting.

Also for yourself, that you look at quality of life, and you are doing research?
As I mentioned to you, I was for six and half year in charge of a research council. And I was also chairman in the Standing Committee for the Social Sciences of the European Science Foundation for five years and I must say that exactly on my own quality of life, these experiences have been very important. I have found them very fruitful and encouraging. In the mid-1990s, I decided that I have done this work at the university for many years and now I wonder if I have anything more to do. So, I took these jobs, which meant you met a lot of interesting people and you got a lot of interesting tasks to do. Then at the end of the period, I realised now I can go back and do more research. It that respect, this can be an important part that you can have some variations in what you do.

 

Do you have some suggestions for the research that I am doing?
Well, it depends on the questions you are asking. In my impression, the most important aspect of doing interesting and productive research is that you manage to ask the right questions. You see too many people – not only students, but also researchers – they do a lot of things but they have no clear question. You have to have a question. Then you have to have an idea to approach it. That is the most important thing.

The other thing you have to do, and to some extent you seem to be doing, it is important to have the possibility to talk to others. About what you are doing. And to discuss with them. Be willing to put your ideas to criticism and discussion. Because, we are not so bright as we believe. So, we need very much the discussion.