- Tess Meyer, a 30-year-old consultant from California, moved to Sweden after struggling with burnout.
- Now she rarely works overtime, gets six weeks of paid vacation a year, and got a free master’s.
- But it took her two years to secure a full-time job and her salary is lower than it was in the US.
This story is part of a series called Millennial World, which seeks to examine the state of the generation around the globe. This as-told-to essay is based on an interview with Tess Meyer, a 30-year-old consultant from California and author of the blog Sweden and Me. She has chosen to omit the name of her employer due to the company’s media policy. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m originally from Burbank, California, and moved to Sweden four and a half years ago. My partner and I currently live in Malmö, a city on the southernmost tip of the country 30 minutes away from Copenhagen, Denmark.
Before this, I was living in the US working 50 hours a week and feeling burned out. When I was 23 years old, I left my corporate job at a company I’d been with for four years and moved back in with my parents.
That’s when I started researching happiness. If you type in “happy” into Google, Scandinavian countries are consistently ranked as the happiest countries in the world. So in 2016, I decided to come out to the Nordic region and spent two weeks traveling around to Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki to figure out if I could see myself living there someday.
I connected to the way of life and the values of Swedish society — specifically, the focus on sustainability and not letting stress rule your life. The work-life balance here is incredible. It’s not about working late to get that gold star. In Sweden, if you work late, your boss might flag that your workload is too high, or that you’re not capable enough to do your work within work hours.
As a Swedish resident, I was able to get a free master’s degree
My partner, who is also American, works in the video-game industry. Back in the US, he worked for PlayStation. They don’t have an office in Sweden, but a lot of other video-game studios do, so he was able to get a job offer pretty quickly.
His company sponsored both of our residencies and work visas, so we had the ability to live and work in Sweden full time. Once we moved here, we went to the immigration and tax agencies and filled out all the paperwork. It took around three months to get everything settled.
I started looking for work, but ended up going back to school. I applied twice for a one-year master’s program at the local university. The first time, I applied as an American resident and got accepted. It would have been about $13,000, which isn’t that bad by American standards.
But then I applied again a year later as a Swedish resident with a Swedish social-security number. The same program accepted me again — except this time, it would be completely free.
It took me two years to find a full-time job
After graduation, it was difficult to find a job — it took me two years. I have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the US and a second master’s degree from Sweden. I’m also a native English speaker, which is attractive to a lot of companies here. It’s incredibly tough to get into the Swedish job network. It’s about who you know, and culture fit is really important to the companies here.
I eventually was able to get a job at a major consulting firm, where I’ve been for two and a half years now. I met the team at a university career fair, where they invited me to lunch and an informal interview, and then I formally applied. So it was very much about who I knew and my relationship with them before I even submitted an application. But before that, I had probably put out about 100 applications and networked as much as I could.
I know a lot of other very intelligent expats who also have master’s degrees and can present themselves well who have a hard time in the Swedish job market. It’s definitely dependent on the type of work you want to do. If you’re coming here with a tech background or as a developer, you’re going to find a job instantly.
Personally, I was looking for work within human resources, but I didn’t know Swedish labor laws or the Swedish language, so that eliminated a lot of jobs that I could go for. Also, a lot of companies here are good with their recruitment pipelines with the university students. They occasionally hire students two years in advance.
My salary is lower than it was in the US, but the cost of living is more affordable
My salary here as an American can feel very low, but I feel wealthy in Sweden. You don’t need to make a lot of money to live a good life. Back in the US, I was making $60,000 a year before taxes and that was almost eight years ago. Here, my annual salary is around $45,000 a year before taxes.
Compared to my friends in Sweden, that’s a competitive salary. The country has a very short salary scale. It’s all about income equality, so you don’t see these huge ranges that you might see in the US.
The cost of living in Sweden, especially where I live, is very affordable. I have a two-bedroom apartment that’s slightly over 800 square feet and we pay around $1,000 a month. We don’t need a car because there’s great public transportation and you can bike everywhere. Healthcare in Sweden is basically free — outpatient-visit costs are capped at $125 a year and prescription-drugs costs are capped at $246 a year.
Eating and drinking out can be a little expensive because there’s a value-added tax. When I eat out here, I’ll pay similar prices to what I did in LA, but of course, my salary isn’t as high.
I rarely work overtime and employee well-being is prioritized
In the office, it’s quiet around 4:30 p.m. every single day. I never get meeting invites after three o’clock on Fridays because people are getting their weekends started. It’s very normal to take a long lunch or to leave to go to an appointment, get your hair cut, or to go to an exercise class. Well-being is prioritized.
Also, if you ever need to show up late or miss work or leave early because of your kids, it’s never questioned. No one blinks an eye — you’re expected to be an involved parent.
I very rarely need to work overtime. I work in consulting, which is typically one of the most demanding industries when it comes to work-life balance. I have friends who work at the same firm in the US who have much more demanding schedules.
There’s just a real sense of trust that everyone will do the work that the company assigns them. And if you need to do that early in the morning or late at night because you have a family commitment, that’s great, that’s on you. It’s not a micromanaging and performative culture where you have to sit at your desk even though you’re not doing anything. If I’m done with my work and it’s 3:30 p.m., then I’m going to leave, and nobody worries about it.
I get six weeks of paid vacation every year and I use it all
In Sweden, after you work for a company for a full year, you are legally guaranteed 25 days of paid vacation and you can take up to four consecutive weeks of paid time off during the summer. In fact, you actually get paid a slightly higher salary during your vacation days.
My company gives us six weeks of paid vacation per year, and I take all of it. I personally haven’t taken four weeks in a row because as an American, I’m like, what would I do for four weeks without work? So I take two or three weeks here and there while spreading out long weekends throughout the year. Also, if you don’t take the full 25 days, you can roll over up to five days to the next year.
I spend the majority of my vacation visiting family and traveling around Europe. I have a work phone and a personal phone, so unless there’s something happening at the office that I had been actively involved in, I won’t even bring my work phone with me. For nine out of 10 trips, my work phone stays at my apartment, turned off.
Because I made such drastic changes in my life and moved across the world to improve my work-life balance, I’m very protective over it. I’ve actually had multiple Swedish colleagues tell me that they aspire to be more like me when it comes to setting boundaries. My motivation is just so high because I gave up being near my family, higher salaries, the friendliness of Americans, and the amazing nature in the US to move here.
I’m not sure if we will eventually move back to the US
After our five-year mark, we will apply for Swedish citizenship and still retain my US citizenship.
The way I think about it is that my career is just one pillar of my life. My relationship with my partner, my friends, my family, my wellness and personal development — all of those things also need time and attention.
I felt like working in the US, you could only focus on your career and one or two other pillars — that was the most I had space for. Now I really feel that I have the space to manage more of those pillars, which feels good.
I’m not sure if we will eventually move back to the US. We really miss being close to family. It’s hard having a 12-hour flight and a nine-hour time difference between us. We love living in Europe, and we are different people after having lived here for almost five years. It doesn’t help to see the political climate in the US and the shootings. It’s horrific watching the news.
If we’re planning to have a family in the future, the paid parental leave in Sweden is 480 days. That’s over a year and a half. Just to give that up would feel like a huge sacrifice.