Ms. Johansson starts by explaining that she’s actually in Tokyo on her own initiative, to learn and to be inspired:
“Yes, this trip was my initiative. You see, there is currently a rather intense debate in Sweden, although maybe less than in some other countries, about how robots, automation, artificial intelligence, Internet-of-things and so on will impact the labor market in the future. Will work as we know it disappear? There is a real hunger for information. We also want to know how people in other countries think.
“Some people are optimistic about these changes; some are pessimistic. I’m one of the optimists. I don’t think that jobs will disappear. That said, I am convinced that we stand before major changes and many serious challenges. Basically, Swedish society is receptive to new technology. We tend to see it as a way to become more competitive, increase productivity, and improve the quality of both products and work itself. I think these technologies will lead to more interesting work.
“I’m not under the illusion that you can simply travel to another country and find the answers, but I think that you can learn, see new connections, and find inspiration. I call this my reconnaissance trip. Japan is interesting, not only because it’s at the forefront of many of these technologies, but also because of the country’s demographic situation.”
And what are your impressions so far?
“I’ve been here four days now. I’m about halfway through my program, and it’s been really interesting and very rewarding. I have met organizations, politicians, academics and business leaders. From today, I will start visiting companies and actual workplaces.
“I came to learn and to be inspired. But I quickly realized that there is also a great interest in Sweden, not least in my special field, which is gender equality in and outside of the labor market. Wherever I have been, this is what many have wanted to talk about.
“I’m certainly no expert on Japan, but I have seen many similarities with Swedish labor market practices, such as the role played by the labor unions. But I have also seen many differences. In Sweden, we strive for labor market flexibility underpinned by collective wage formation at the sector level. Wages are kept at a uniform level, regardless of the profitability of individual companies.
“Our philosophy is that we should protect employees, but not the less profitable companies. Such companies must be allowed to fail. They should not be “subsidized” by being allowed to set lower salaries. What’s unique about Sweden is that all parties in the labor market, including the unions, have agreed to this approach. In the long term, this will increase the competitiveness of Swedish industry as a whole. And that, in turn, will make room for an ever better welfare system.”
You have throughout your political career been heavily involved in issues regarding women in the labor market, and in society at large.
“Quite a few Japanese women seem to be aware of that. I have had many interesting discussions with Japanese women during my visit here. We have a very high female
participation ratio for women in the Swedish workforce. I’m often asked how that’s possible. My answer is that there are three cornerstones in the Swedish system: individual taxation, childcare that is of high quality and universally available, and good elderly care.
“The last part is usually less talked about, but it’s equally important, for two reasons. One, it’s difficult for women to have careers if they also need to care for elderly parents or relatives. Two, parents generally do not want to be cared for by their children; they want to spend quality time with them in a way that preserves dignity. That means doing things together, eating out, going to the theater and so on, not just being cared for. We know this very well after numerous surveys in Sweden.”
One last question: Does everybody really have to work? That seems to be official policy in Sweden.
“Yes,” she answers without hesitation, before elaborating:
“There are two reasons. We know that men and women, at least in Sweden, generally live better lives in more equal relationships. They have better relations, they have more fun, they have more sex, (or at least, more children), and they divorce less. We know this to be true from many surveys. Having both partners earning money is a critical part of an equal relationship.
“Secondly, there is the societal point of view. A high standard of living and an inclusive, high-quality welfare system require a high degree of productivity. This in turn requires that as many people as possible are active members of the workforce.”