The rise of entrepreneurship in Swedish schools

Entrepreneurship training was introduced in selected Swedish high schools already in 1980 and has since gained a strong position in the school system. In order to understand this development, we need to examine how the discourse of entrepreneurialism was connected to key tenets of the welfare state (such as progressive educational ideals) as well as neoliberal ideas.

Entrepreneurship has emerged as a topic of strategic importance for governments in the Nordics as well as worldwide. In Sweden, entrepreneurship training for high school students started already in 1980 - a time usually perceived as the heyday of the highly regulated welfare state. The aim was to instill broad and practice-based skills, and even a new mindset in students. The number of students who participated in the training grew steadily and entrepreneurship eventually became part of the national curricula for both elementary and upper secondary schools in 2011.

"Management course for school children": The start of Young Entrepreneurship in 1980

In the fall semester of 1980, a voluntary program for entrepreneurship started in two Swedish schools in the city of Linköping, which, in the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, was ironically referred to as a “management course for school children”. The program's core was that pupils ran their own small companies for a school year, through which they learned how a business worked in practice and developed skills relating to production, finance, and marketing. What started as a small-scale experiment has, since then, grown into a powerful movement centered on promoting an entrepreneurial mindset among thousands of pupils.

The organization running the program, Young Entrepreneurship (Ung Företagsamhet), was modeled on an American predecessor, Junior Achievement, and was one of the first to start outside of the United States. For example, in the other Nordic countries, similar programs did not start until the middle of the 1990s (1993/1994 in Denmark, 1995 in Finland, and 1997 in Norway). Today, almost 30 percent of all Swedish high school pupils participate in Young Entrepreneurship programs. The early start and steady growth of these programs in Sweden is an essential part of the story of the transformation of Swedish society during the last decades of the twentieth century.

Youth unemployment and progressive educational ideas

The start of Young Entrepreneurship took place at a time when there were structural problems in the Swedish economy that can be traced back to the crisis in the early 1970s. Around 1980, there was a rise in youth unemployment and several actors in society, such as governmental agencies, private companies, and the cooperative movement, started various initiatives to tackle the problem. From the employers’ side, there were complaints about legislation that both stifled innovation and made it too risky for companies to employ young people. Education was integral to the debate, and it was widely recognized that the school system needed to be part of the solution.

The dominant pedagogical ideas of the time are also important in order to understand the rise of entrepreneurship in Swedish schools. Since at least the interwar period, there had been a movement to reform the Swedish school system to foster citizens in a spirit of democracy and equality, and to create skills which would better fit the needs and challenges of modern society. In particular, progressive politicians and decision makers in the school system wanted to move away from hierarchical structures in school - rote learning and one-way communication from teachers to pupils - to an environment where pupils learned to engage in practical problem-solving, democratic decision-making, and seeking out knowledge themselves. In addition, it was important for schools to open up more to the surrounding society, such as the local business community, an ambition that was even more pronounced in a new curriculum that was introduced in 1980. Organized interests, ranging from trade unions to the increasingly politically active Swedish Employers' Confederation (Svenska Arbetsgivareföreningen, SAF), answered by creating specialized “school departments” that produced educational material, visited schools, and initiated projects. 

The entrepreneurial self

The 1980s has often been described as a key decade, a bridge between the post-war creation of the prosperous “people’s home” (“Folkhemmet” in Swedish), and the start of a more globalized, fragmented, and neoliberal society. In research about the rise of neoliberalism, the idea of the entrepreneurial mindset, or the “entrepreneurial self”, is integral to neoliberal ideology. As part of transforming society to become more global, less regulated, and more market- and business-friendly, it was equally important that people learned to think of themselves as “projects” that needed investment and constant improvement, and could be evaluated based on cost and benefit in monetary terms. The growth of Young Entrepreneurship can usefully be seen against the backdrop of these tensions in society and as part of a new zeitgeist that emerged in the 1980s, clearly inspired by the idea of the bold entrepreneur and visible in symbols such as the yuppie, the rising stock market and a consumerist lifestyle. Already in 1979, SAF had initiated an advertising campaign towards young people with the headline “Invest in yourself!” (“Satsa på dig själv!”), which also became a symbol of the new era and clear evidence of the increasingly ideological aims pursued by organized business.

Blurred boundaries between Young Entrepreneurship and organized business

In 1980, however, the start of Young Entrepreneurship in Sweden caused controversy. The organization was not-for-profit but backed by organized business, and SAF remained one the most important funders, at least until the early 1990s. In addition, one of the founders of Young Entrepreneurship worked at the Federation of Swedish Industries (Sveriges Industriförbund). The fact that the boundaries between Young Entrepreneurship and organized business were blurred in the eyes of the public was a problem for the organization as it risked undermining its legitimacy. The solution was a strategy to constantly downplay the importance of the business interest organizations that were involved by emphasizing other funders and nurturing an image of Young Entrepreneurship as a small-scale, grassroots movement. This image fitted better with the ideals of the welfare state. Consequently, the organization’s headquarters was placed at the University of Linköping, where one of the founders worked, which was explicitly referred to as a neutral site, far from the business sphere.

Indoctrination or education?

Young Entrepreneurship grew steadily in the 1980s but also faced fierce criticism. Unsurprisingly, many critics came from the political left and questioned the motives of the organization. For example, the program was accused of being political propaganda disguised as education; a means whereby young people would learn to internalize the foundations of capitalism. Some trade union representatives were critical of how the program was designed. In the small companies that they set up, all pupils were on equal footing and everybody took part in making important decisions, which was an unrealistic representation of a business enterprise. However, there was also positive interest early on from actors that were close to the Social Democrats; increased entrepreneurship could be a way to strengthen the welfare state. Furthermore, Young Entrepreneurship was criticized for only being concerned with competition and profit, and lacking a social, human, and environmental focus. On the other hand, this type of focus was never the point. From the beginning, the program sought to instill broad and practice-based skills and a new mindset in the pupils. Precisely what kind of product or service the pupils created was secondary.    

Entrepreneurialism meets progressive pedagogy      

The “learning by doing” approach and the idea of letting pupils move from theory to practice was - and still is - at the core of the Young Entrepreneurship program. The new entrepreneurial training, in fact, fitted neatly with left-wing, progressive ideas on education, which had a similar, more practice-oriented view of knowledge. The expectation on teachers to open up to surrounding society in line with the curriculum also proved to be fertile ground for an organization such as Young Entrepreneurship, which offered a new concept that seemed to engage pupils. The surprising connection between left-wing movements and ideas and subsequent neoliberal reforms is a relatively new perspective and source of inquiry in research. Research has, for example, shown that the ideological changes in the Swedish Social Democratic party in the 1980s paved the way for typical neoliberal reforms such as deregulation and the promotion of market solutions (see Jenny Andersson’s book from 2010 in ‘Further Reading’ for more on this). In a similar vein, new research in American history has revealed how actors and ideas to the left of the political spectrum either acted as unintentional neoliberal reformers or were, at the very least, a source of inspiration and provided legitimacy for changes implemented by conservatives (see Geismer, 2022, for example).

The de-politicization of entrepreneurship

If Young Entrepreneurship stirred up feelings in the 1980s, it gradually lost its aura of controversy and became mainstream. Today, few people get upset about its connections to “big business” and the headquarters of Young Entrepreneurship is located in the so-called “House of Enterprise” (Näringslivets Hus), the center for organized business and industry in Stockholm. In the 1990s, the interest in entrepreneurship grew even more, and in educational circles, “entrepreneurial learning” became a buzzword. The basic idea was that all children are entrepreneurial by nature since they are curious, creative, and naturally interested in problem-solving, an idea that, once again, fitted well with the school system’s overarching epistemological view. In this strange way, entrepreneurship was reconfigured as a harmless, non-political, even natural, way of being. It is only the provision of the right institutional environment that is needed for children and young people to develop their inherent entrepreneurial talents.

The story of how entrepreneurship rose to prominence in Swedish schools is a telling example of how the ideas and goals of a diverse set of societal actors (such as, policymakers in the educational system, political parties and private business) intersected in surprising ways, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in agreement. They, together, undoubtedly reinforced a more market- and business-friendly societal discourse. Investigating these complex processes is crucial if we are to understand the drastic changes in Swedish society since the late twentieth century, of which entrepreneurship is an integral part.

The research on which this article is based was funded by Jan Wallanders och Tom Hedelius Stiftelse samt Tore Browaldhs Stiftelse (grant no. P2013-144:1).

Further reading:

  • Angus Burgin, ‘The Reinvention of Entrepreneurship”, in American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times, Raymond Haberski Jr. and Andrew Moravcsik, eds, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018) pp. 163-180.
  • Jenny Andersson, The Library and the Workshop: Social Democracy and Capitalism in the Knowledge Age. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
  • Elin Åström Rudberg, ‘Doing Business in the Schools of the Welfare State: Competing “Entrepreneurial Selves” and the Roots of Entrepreneurship Education in 1980s Sweden’, Enterprise & Society, 1, 27 (2022).
  • Lily Geismer, Left Behind: The Democrats Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, (New York: Public Affairs, 2022).
  • Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock, 'Putting School Commercialism in Context: A Global History of Junior Achievement Worldwide', Journal of Education Policy, 24, 6 (2009) pp. 769–786.