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Sweden is one of the most paradoxical nations on earth. An essentially conservative country, it is nonetheless a leader in social welfare, prison reform, and equal opportunity for women.

Despite trouble maintaining its once-bustling economy, Sweden has long enjoyed some of the highest wages and the best standard of living in Europe. There may be trouble in paradise, but compared with the rest of the world, Sweden is better off than most other nations.

This is a land where the urbane and the untamed are said to live harmoniously. With a population density of only 18 people per square kilometer (48 per square mile), there's ample space for all of Sweden's nine million residents. About 85% of Sweden's citizens live in the southern half of the country. The north is populated by Sweden's two chief minority groups: the Sami (Lapp) and the Finnish-speaking people of the northeast. Among the cities, Stockholm is the political capital, with a population of 1,435,000; Gothenburg, the automobile-manufacturing center, has 705,000; and Malmö, the port city, has around 500,000.

Once home to an ethnically homogenous society, Sweden has experienced a vast wave of immigration in the past several years. Today more than 10% of Sweden's residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Much of this influx is from other Scandinavian countries. Because of Sweden's strong stance on human rights, it also has become a major destination for political and social refugees from Africa and the Middle East. A vast number of immigrants seeking asylum come from the former Yugoslavia.

Sweden's government is a constitutional monarchy supported by a parliamentary government. The royal family functions primarily in a ceremonial capacity. The actual ruling body is a one-chamber parliament, whose members are popularly elected for 3-year terms. The present government is headed by a Social Democrat, Goeran Persson. Because of Sweden's location in the Baltic, it has been active in promoting peace among the warring Baltic states. The country is an active member of the United Nations and was admitted as a full member to the European Union in 1995.

Like other European countries, Sweden's policy of cradle-to-grave welfare has been threatened in recent years. The main topic of debate in the parliament is how to sustain Sweden's generous welfare system while putting a halt to ever-increasing taxes, currently at 59%. At this time, the state provides health insurance as well as many generous family benefits, including an allowance for care providers, 15 months paid parental leave after the birth of a child (divided between both parents), tax-free child allowances, and education stipends for children. When a Swede reaches retirement at age 65, he or she is entitled to a hefty pension that rises with inflation.

Education plays an important role in Sweden. Schools are run by various municipalities, providing free tuition, books, and lunches. Although attendance is mandatory for only 9 years, 90% of Swedes pursue some form of higher education. Adult education and university study are funded by the state.

Sweden's advanced level of education coincides with its high-tech industrial economy. Although in years past Sweden's economy was based on agriculture, in the latter half of the 20th century and postmillennium, industry has become predominant, employing nearly 80% of all Swedish workers. More than 50% of Sweden's exports are composed of heavy machinery, including cars, trucks, and telecommunications equipment. Companies such as Saab and Volvo (bought by Ford Motor Co.) produce vehicles familiar throughout the world. Despite Sweden's industrial milieu, the country manages to produce some 80% of its own food.

Although such a highly industrialized nation depends on its factories, Sweden has enacted stringent environmental policies. The task of monitoring the country's environment is the responsibility of local governments. Each of Sweden's 286 municipalities has the right to limit pollutant emissions in its own sector.

The environment has always played an integral role in the lives of Swedes. Sweden has 20 national parks; although these wilderness areas are not regulated by law, Sweden's policy of free access entitles citizens to unlimited admission at no charge.

Another important element is Sweden's strong focus on culture. Over the past 25 years or so, Swedes have turned their attention to music. Today young people are purchasing more recorded music and attending more live concerts than they were even a decade ago. Book reading is on the rise (more than 10,000 titles are published in Sweden every year, and Swedes traditionally have had a literacy rate of more than 99%), museum attendance has increased, and there's greater interest in the media. Swedes spend an average of 6 hours per day immersed in some form of mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and so forth).

Increasingly, Sweden is being pressed to drop its neutrality and to join an expanding NATO. The country continues to resist that pressure. Although Sweden has been a member of the European Union since 1995, polls today indicate that it would reject membership if a new election were held.

There is a certain nostalgia sweeping Sweden today, a desire to return to the way life used to be when Sweden was one of the three or four richest countries in the world.

As Sweden moves even deeper into the 21st century, its problems continue. For example, businesses can't grow because it's too expensive to hire people. Observers have noted that young Swedes are starting to think internationally, and some of them are leaving Sweden to take positions elsewhere in the global economy. "The people leaving are the very people that Sweden needs the most," one Swedish businessman lamented to the press.

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