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Responsibilization In The Mail: Anthropological Perspectives on Sweden’s Reformed National Pension System

0 Comments 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

Nyqvist leader image

Pensioners in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo credit: Danko Durbić.


by Anette Nyqvist

Every spring, all Swedish taxpaying citizens receive bright orange envelopes from the government. These orange envelopes bring individually specific messages from state to citizen and have an important role in the responsibilization process (Rose, 1996; 1999) of the reformed national pension system in Sweden – where responsibility has shifted from the state level to the individual level. The dual aim of this article is to highlight the knowledge that can be gained from studying a national pension system from an anthropological perspective, and to shed light on some of the methodological aspects within the anthropology of policy.

A national pension system is a policy. It consists of an assortment of written documents of various kinds with varying significance, most of which are continuously being reformulated and negotiated in an ongoing process of policy-making. Within the anthropology of policy, policies are seen as processual, relational, and, not least, political. Anthropologists are interested in what policies do, not from an instrumental or efficiency perspective but, rather, to understand how policies can affect the way individuals construct themselves as subjects (Shore et. al, 2011; Shore & Wright, 1997). I studied Sweden’s national pension system, viewing it as a political technology and organizing principle with power to shape “the way we live, act and think” (Shore and Wright, 1997).

Since 1990, many of the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have reformed their pension schemes. Sweden’s new national pension system was inaugurated in 1999. For my dissertation in social anthropology, I studied the production, implementation – or distribution – and reception of Sweden’s reformed national pension system. By way of close ethnographic study of the policy process, my aim was to shed light on the actors involved at different sites and levels in the policy process: who they were, what they did, and how they did it. By mapping out the policy process, I got a glimpse of the workings of new forms of governance.

The launch day of Sweden’s current national pension system was January 1st, 1999. The main difference was a shift to a contribution-based program, with fixed payments and pensions pending, as opposed to the previous national pension system, which was benefit-based, with payments pending and pensions fixed. With this shift came a new set of policies. The new system required a portion of each citizen’s pension capital to be placed in investment funds annually. Also new was that each individual’s pension benefits were to be based upon the sum of an entire life of employment with “flexible” pension ages.  It was then that the government began to send out those bright orange envelopes containing citizens’ annual individualized pension information.

Sweden’s national pension system is now a closed financial and self-regulating system, in which citizens receive nothing more than what has been paid. The system is revised every year, and if the intricate equation does not add up, the entire pension system is “automatically balanced.” In other words, pensions are lowered so that the incomes and expenditures of the pension system add up. Each individual’s lifetime income and years of employment regulate that person’s level of pension in the future, as does the nation’s economic growth, demographic statistics, and each citizen’s ability to place part of his or her future pension on a global stock market. With the design of the current system, the responsibility of adjusting pension levels is divided and relocated to both the individual level (where it is up to each citizen to secure his/her future pension) and to the distant national and global economic level of demography, growth rates and market mechanisms.

In my study of Sweden’s reformed national pension system, I took the notion of “studying through” (Reinhold in Shore and Wright, 1997:14; Wright and Reinhold, 2011:86) policy seriously, and set out to follow the policy through society (Nyqvist, 2008; 2011; forthcoming). I defined three sub-fields, which I took to represent roughly the production, distribution and receiving “fields” of the national pension system, here seen from an anthropological perspective.

I examined the production of the new national pension policy by conducting qualitative, semi-structured interviews with all members of the government committee that designed the new pension scheme. The legislation of the current national pension system follows the fundamental reform suggestions published in a 1994 parliamentary committee report, so I contacted the 22 individuals who had signed the report and interviewed them about the making of the pension system. My interviews with the members of the parliamentary committee are filled with aesthetic descriptions, such as: “fantastic,” “genial,” “graceful” and “awesome.” One politician’s comment illustrates well the aestheticization of the national pension system: “What seduced me was the beauty in that the system would buffer its own reserves in a perfectly obvious way.” The producers of the system viewed it from the technocratic perspective as a financial system, agreeing on its self-regulating technology and autonomous character. The politicians of the committee talked about how their “elegant solution to a complex problem” bridged most political differences. The process of constructing calculations and formulas worked to erase, or at least dilute political aspects of pensions. In the process, the constructors of the national pension system embraced the notion that numbers and calculations are politically neutral or even apolitical.

Photo credit: Holger.Ellgaard

Photo credit: Holger.Ellgaard

I studied the distribution of the pension system from state to citizen by conducting participant observations and interviews at the then two government agencies in charge of administering the system and communicating the policy to the public: the Social Insurance Agency and the Premium Pension Authority, PPM. The administration of Sweden’s national pensions system has since under gone substantial reorganization. Since January 1st, 2010, it has been administered by one new state authority: Pensionsmyndigheten. I spent a year doing meeting ethnographies (Nyqvist, 2015; Schwartzman, 1989) and attending a vast variety and number of meetings, all concerning different aspects of public pension information. I initially gained access to a working-group with the mission to develop a new communication policy for the national pension system.

While involved in this work, I became a familiar face in the corridors of both authorities, and I soon found myself able to participate in many other working-groups and meetings. One of the working-groups that I gained access to was the one writing the content of the orange envelope. The content of the second orange envelope sent out during the spring of 2000 was a special one, since it contained the sum of each citizen’s accumulated pension thus far during his or her lifetime, recalculated and presented as “pension rights” within the new national pension system. It was an account of every citizen’s life, translated into numbers. A public officer who worked with the earlier orange envelopes recalled how they did a survey to see how people would receive their “life in numbers”: “They each got to see their own individual accounts and we were watching their reactions as they looked it through. It was incredible and terrible. Four of them broke down totally and cried so that we had to sit and comfort them,” said the public officer, explaining that the numerical listings of the very personal events in each individual’s life caused the strong emotional reactions. Another informant cited the state’s cautionary message to save more in order to prevent shock among the population as a source of distress. She compared the new national pension system and its annual, individual pension information with the old one, in which people found out about the level of their pension when they retired: “People were very, very disappointed then. Now they get disappointed once a year! I think that is revolutionary! Really, it is absolutely fantastic!”

The third sub-field dealt with the receiving end of the policy. During the summer of 2005, when most of the work at the government authorities was on hold anyway due to vacation, I went on a long road trip all over the country to interview “ordinary Swedes” about their reactions to the new national pension system. I talked to people in city squares, parks, and markets, in cafés and stores, at festivals and beaches, even in their gardens. I conceptualized these interviews as “a collection of voices”, consisting of expressions of emotions and attitudes, as well as accounts of practices concerning the national pension system in Sweden. The collection of voices constitutes an important part of my endeavour to “study through” Sweden’s national pension system and as a way to “engage ethnographically with emerging resonances of society” (Holmes & Marcus, 2006:6).

There is a discrepancy between how producers and distributors talk about the pension system and how the receivers talk about it. Politicians, experts and public officers are pleased to be relieved of their agency and responsibility, while citizens are reluctant to take on such a responsibility and respond with anger and frustration at having been burdened with it. My interviews with Swedish citizens reveal that people have, in fact, understood that there is a new element of individual responsibility in the construction of the current national pension system. They are reminded of their pension every spring when they receive the orange envelope, but many of the people I talked to never open the envelope, and others say they confuse the government information with commercial advertising. Some who do read the content express that they feel unsuited and ill-equipped to handle their new responsibility to take care of their own future pension. They feel angry, frustrated, cheated and insecure.

Together these different approaches to studying through Sweden’s national pension system shed light on the implications of an actually existing process of “responsibilization” (Rose, 1996; 1999). More specifically, the research shows how pension system experts, politicians and bureaucrats set out to educate the general public and teach Swedish citizens not to depend upon state initiatives but, rather, to take individual responsibility and to “think financially” all through life in order to secure their future pension. The study also reveals that neither the government’s transferring of former state responsibility to individual citizens, nor the state’s fostering attempts are met with acceptance at the receiving end of the policy. Rather, the interview study among “ordinary Swedes” shows that the reformed national pension system, an important part of the national security system, is received with great skepticism, causing people to feel confused, angry, cheated, incompetent and insecure, instead of evoking the hoped for sense of empowerment and security.

Anette Nyqvist is an Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. Her most recent research is on institutional owners and the responsible investment industry (Nyqvist, Liber, 2015). Her contributions within the Anthropology of Organizations and the Anthropology of Policy is noted in publications such as, for instance, Organisational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and Among Complex Organizations (with Professor Christina Garsten for Pluto Press, 2013), and a chapter in the anthology Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power (eds Shore, Wright and Peró, Berghahn books, 2011).


This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.


Holmes, Douglas and George Marcus. 2006.  Fast Capitalism: Para-Ethnography and the Rise of the Symbolic Analyst.” In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, edited by Melissa Fisher and Greg Downey. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nyqvist, Anette. 2008.  Opening the Orange Envelope. Reform and Responsibility in the Remaking of the Swedish National Pension System. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press.

Nyqvist, Anette. 2011.  “Sweden’s National Pension System as a Political Technology.” In Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power, edited by Cris Shore, Susan Wright and Davide Peró. New York: Berghahn Books.

Nyqvist, Anette. 2015. Ombudskapitalisterna. Institutionella ägares roll och röst. Stockholm: Liber.

Nyqvist, Anette. (forthcoming). Insecurity in an Orange Envelope. PoLar (accepted for publication 2015).

Rose, Nikolas. 1996. “Governing ‘Advanced’ Liberal Democracies.” In Foucault and Political Reason. Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and Rationalities of Government, edited by Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of Freedom. Reframing Political Thought. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Schwartzman, Helen B. 1989. The Meeting. Gatherings in Organizations and Communities. New York: Plenum Press.

Shore, Cris and Susan Wright. 1997. Anthropology of Policy. Critical perspectives on governance and power. New York, NY: Routledge.

Shore, Cris, Wright, Susan, and Davide Peró. 2011. Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. New York: Berghahn Books.

Wright, Susan and Susan Reinhold. 2011. “Studying Through: A Strategy for Studying Political Transformation. Or Sex, Lies and British Politics.” In Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power, edited by Cris Shore, Susan Wright and Davide Peró. New York: Berghahn Books.

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