I was born and grew up in Uppsala, Sweden. As the only child, I was very close 19 with my parents. My mother was a social science teacher and my father was a senior lecturer in statistics at Uppsala University.”
Magdalena describes her childhood as warm and loving. Her parents always treated her as though her thoughts mattered.
“The three of us had a lot of dinner-table discussions on education, politics, and statistics. The conversations were more grown up, compared to those at my friends’ houses. I became very aware of what was happening in the world. This definitely shaped me.”
Magdalena had an evening ritual with her mother that became a focal part of each day.
“I cuddled up next to Mom at 7:30 every night to watch the news together. I saw how unfair the world can be: that it depends on what country you are born in, where you grow up, what parents you have, and whether you are a boy or a girl, which all determines your chances in life. I was very upset and wanted to change this.”
Even in a country such as Sweden, Magdalena was aware of the differences between how boys and girls were treated.
“This was the 70’s. We’ve come a long way since then, but Sweden could still be a lot more gender equal, and it definitely wasn’t when I grew up. My father was considered a ‘modern’ dad compared to many others, as he was so involved in my upbringing: especially when it came to our shared love of athletics and music. He was very healthy and fit and inspired me to be as well. Dad took me to my practices and lessons and always accompanied me to competitions and concerts. I treasured our time together. My training was so important that he often left notes around the house to remind himself where and when to pick me up. I thought he was so focused on his work that he needed these reminders, a bit like the absent-minded professor.”
Magdalena always had an interest in politics. She dreamed of becoming the head of a cooperative grocery store in Sweden.
“I definitely saw myself leading something and, as a child, a grocery store was something I thought would suit me.”
Magdalena inherited her excellent athletic ability from her father.
“Dad and I did all kinds of sports together: running, skiing, hiking... We’d always try to outdo each other. It was a friendly competition between father and daughter.”
Magdalena smiles lovingly as she says these words.
“I did gymnastics quite seriously; then, when I was eight, I started swimming competitively. There was just not enough time to do both; I ultimately picked swimming, which I think was
a good choice.”
Magdalena describes her intense commitment.
“I was up at 5:15 and in the pool by 6:00; I trained for an hour then got ready for school, which I did three days per week, then again after school five days a week. On weekends, I was always either practicing or competing. Dad drove me all over the country to compete in these meets. We had really deep conversations even if he did sometimes seem distracted.”
Magdalena was the Junior Champion in Sweden twice: at thirteen and, again, at fourteen. The 200 m breaststroke and butterfly were her strongest.
“Swimming was such a big part of my life. I think growing up doing competitive sports is so good for a child. You learn a lot about your strength as an individual and as part of a team. I think socializing is such an important part of exercising; it gives a child the chance to bond with their teammates and share a similar goal. I also think parents can help build their children’s confidence. My parents were my biggest fans, cheering me on from the sidelines.”
Other things became more interesting in high school, so Magdalena retired from competitive swimming.
“I became a member of the Social Democratic Youth League because I really wanted to make a difference in the world. We met at different places to organize things after we had done our homework.”
Magdalena was part of a group that started a local youth movement in Uppsala with the aim of finding somewhere young people could meet. There were a lot of teenagers hanging out on the streets on Friday and Saturday nights without much money or anything to do.
“We wanted to have somewhere in Uppsala where we could actually come together. We had so much energy and so many new ideas that I thought: Why not just let us teenagers organize things by ourselves? We fought the municipality to create a place where high school students could socialize. This grassroots movement had hundreds of members! We had demonstrations, stood in the local squares, wrote newspapers, worked in the different parties, and presented our ideas to politicians. We were actually successful and obtained a house where we staged concerts, showed movies, built a café, and created rehearsal band rooms. A number of great bands performed. Ungdomens Hus (The Youth House) was organized by teenagers for teenagers.”
The group cooperated with the Employment Office where, through a labor market program, 21 young people were able to work. This gave so many teens the chance to work together as a
team and create something.
“That was amazing. It was so exciting to lead that movement – at eighteen years old. I learned so much: that politics can, indeed, change things; that it was worth the time to be engaged; and that anyone can make a difference.”
This was one of Magdalena’s most memorable achievements.
“Now, at 55, I look back and must say that we had a lot of energy. We were not scared of anything, which I guess is kind of part of being a teen: having that passion to make a change without any fear to stop you.”
After high school, there was really only one route for Magdalena.
“I thought economics was exciting and was a really interesting way to explain politics and how society works. When I arrived at the Stockholm School of Economics in 1992 – not being from Stockholm or knowing anyone who had gone there – I thought it might be very snobbish. I remember being positively surprised there were also so many really down-to-earth people with different backgrounds who came from all parts of Sweden.”
Everything was so organized at the school, which really impressed Magdalena. The fact it was a small school made it easier to meet and get to know people.
“We were very well taken care of and had lots of fun. There was a Social Democratic club through which I made very close friendships. The former SSE President, Lars Bergman, was my first professor in economics. His first class really clicked with me: I guess you could say that it was love at first sight. With economics.”
Magdalena was the International Secretary of the Social Democratic Students Organization for two years. Eastern Europe had just opened up, and she traveled to help the students organize politically.
“I had just studied in East Germany during the summer with students from all over the world. This was definitely important, especially for how I look upon politics: What is it like to live in a country that is not a democracy?”
Magdalena remembers the oppression when you discussed politics and constantly having to look over your shoulder.
“The Stasi were everywhere. When a demonstration started, maybe twenty people were there with more than 40 civilian policemen and guards. When I was back in Uppsala, I watched the Berlin Wall fall live on TV. It was riveting. I wanted to borrow my father’s car and drive to Germany. But I had exams. These people were suddenly free; it was fantastic.”
Magdalena says that, even with the joy of democracy, the change was also very difficult and painful. Especially for many of her East German friends.
“These students were my age and just finished their education. What’s the need for someone who is knowledgeable in East German law or East German economics? Many had to be completely re-educated. Unemployment was extremely high. I just wanted to be part of the movement.”
“The blessing of living in a democracy is taken for granted when you are used to having it. No one can do everything. But each and every one of us can do our part in making the world a better place.”
Magdalena loved living abroad. In addition to studying in Sweden and in Germany, she went to the University of Vienna for a semester, then to Chile. She returned to Vienna in 1994, to do research at the Institute for Advanced Studies. In 1995, she went to Harvard.
“When my parents came to visit me in Vienna in the spring of ‘92, we went out for dinner. Dad just stared at the menu and couldn’t decide; by the time he got to the bottom, he had already forgotten what he had read at the top. It became painfully evident to us; this was something much more than absent-mindedness. It was heartbreaking.”
Magdalena’s eyes well up with tears as she says these words. When she returned to Sweden that summer, her parents had some harrowing news.
“They didn’t even need to tell me; I knew what was coming. Dad was 56 years old and had full-blown Alzheimer’s. The descent into the disease had taken a decade. There was finally a word for something we had noticed for years. The diagnosis was actually a relief. Dad could finally receive the medical care he so desperately needed.”
In 1992, Magdalena graduated from the Stockholm School of Economics with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Economics. This was overshadowed by her father’s debilitating mental state.
Magdalena thought it was exciting when she was asked to start a PhD. The plan was to research labor market programs and second-generation immigrants. She soon discovered that it just didn’t suit her to sit alone in her room and write a thesis.
“I wanted to meet people instead. I started working as political advisor to Prime Minister Göran Persson in 1996. My mother was happy that I was espousing the values that my parents had taught me. I knew Dad was proud of me too, even if it was more difficult for him to speak.”
“He looked at me though with those same thoughtful eyes, as warm and as loving as they had always been. It was so painful for me to watch him slowly fade away.”
Magdalena drew boundless strength from her mother. As with many spouses who are left to care for their loved ones, Magdalena’s mother was the pillar of support, working full-time while caring for her beloved husband.
“It was so difficult for her, but we tried to make life as fulfilling as it could be for as long as possible. We continued to ski together and walk through the forest. My parents had been life partners and best friends for more than 30 years. She was still by his side, but Dad wasn’t really there. I admire her strength to carry on for him, for me, for our family.”
Magdalena fell in love with more than just economics at SSE. The school offered entrance exams for those wishing to apply without straight A’s. She jokes that her husband, Professor Richard Friberg, wasn’t a straight-A student either.
“We met there at the exam. I thought he was so good-looking; so I approached him, and we chatted briefly. We then wished each other luck and said goodbye. Perhaps I should have been thinking about school, but I just kept hoping that I would see him again. When he wasn’t there when classes started, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have the chance to get to know him better. But when school started the following year, there he was! He explained he had done his military service. From the beginning, I liked everything about him.”
“We realized we worked really well together and went on the same field study to Chile. There were many late hours working together in the library in Santiago. If you can write your bachelor theses together, you can probably spend your lives together.”
Magdalena and Richard were married in 1997. They are both so grateful to the support worker at the long-term care facility where Magdalena’s father was living who accompanied him to the wedding and dinner. Magdalena says her father didn’t say much, but she knew he was happy.
“Richard has been my best friend and my lover and was my greatest source of comfort through Dad’s demise. Dad really loved Richard; it’s sad they couldn’t have spent more time together.”
In the early years of their marriage, Magdalena was the Director of Planning to the Prime Minister while Richard was finishing his PhD.
“We worked a lot; we also shared a passion for the outdoors. We did a lot of skating, cross-country skiing, hiking, kayaking, and climbing. One time, we hopped in the car and headed south, not knowing where we were going. We ended up in the Alps, and it was wonderful.”
Their son was born two years later; then their daughter came two years after that.
“The joy of being a mom is hard to put into words. Richard and I have always shared responsibility for both the children and the household. I could not have had this career, otherwise. In practice, my husband is a great feminist.”
“Watching our children graduate from high school and go onto university reminded me of how important that time is. It’s another opportunity to rejoice and marvel at the wonders of being a parent: from the first time they looked at me after those few chaotic days in the maternity ward, to the big strong and warm people they’ve become. I feel infinite gratitude, humility, and love for the gift of being a parent.”
Magdalena worked as Director of Planning from 1998 to 2004 and State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, from 2004 to 2006. When the Social Democrats became the opposition in 2006, Magdalena was a Domestic Policy Advisor until 2009.
She became Chief Director of the Swedish Tax Agency for three years starting in 2009 until Leader of the Opposition, Stefan Löfven called in 2012, and asked her to shadow the Minister of Finance as the Economic Policy Spokesperson.
In 2014, Magdalena Andersson was appointed the Minister of Finance of Sweden. History was made in 2021, when Magdalena Andersson became the first female Prime Minister of Sweden.
One would think the job is all about numbers, but Prime Minister Andersson says the heart of her job is the people.
“The numbers are the people. When I presented the budgets as Minister of Finance, the people are the purpose behind the taxes. Public spending is good for the country and for its citizens. I am always thinking of how my work can benefit the people. That’s my motivation.”
“It’s exactly the same as sitting on the sofa as a little girl with my mother; I wanted to make this planet a better place for everyone.”
Magdalena brings it all back to her formative years, growing up in a home where education was essential.
“Something I would tell younger students is to study hard, but also to have a lot of fun. I’m proud to have gone to the Stockholm School of Economics; it’s probably one of the best business schools in the world, and it is free. For all Europeans. This is something we should be very proud of.”
“I think my mother is very proud of me, but what’s important for her is not that I am the Prime Minister; it’s that I have good values and that I take a stand for what I believe in. And, as I sat there in those last days with my father when he was unable to speak and didn’t recognize me anymore but was still able to lay his head on my shoulder as I held his hand,
I think he was proud of me too. People don’t need words to communicate their love.”
“My hope is to use my family’s experience with Alzheimer’s to help others. I am now one year younger than my father was when he was diagnosed. From him, I learned that we all must seize the moment and not put off anything in life. I try to eat healthy, sleep well, and keep my
body as fit as my mind.”
Hold your loved ones close and be kind to everyone. You never know what kind of battle they may be fighting.
Text: Karyn McGettigan