Rattvisematta, Provoking debate around the Swedish Pension System
Project Report for Bachelors project at Konstfack Stockholm, Spring Semester 2018
Today Sweden has a feminist government, but what does that mean for systemic equality or rather the lack of it? From my short time in Sweden, I have been amazed at the level of progress of gender equality here that has been enabled through discussions and actions. With the #metoo and #timesup anti-sexual harassment protests at the forefront of mainstream media attention, now feels like the right time to also bring other structural, feminist, discrimination and equality issues to the forefront of public debate and discussion.
For this personal in-depth design project have chosen to explore the built-in injustices that play an intrinsic role in the Swedish pension system. In my project, I have been exploring methods of developing and using engagement artifacts as pedagogic tools, protest objects and conversation starters for the Swedish pensions debate. Part of this has been working to develop ways to visually, physically and spatially represent injustices in the system to engage more people in the pension system debate, as well as raise questions about equality beyond pensions to other intrinsically unfair infrastructures. I have researched and designed through an intersectional and intersectional feminist lens, considering the notions of family and immigration in 2018. I have also touched on the ideologies of statist individualism, justice, nationhood, ethnic belonging, freedom and deservingness/ worthiness, as part of investigating the main narrative of the discussions within parliament and pensionsgruppen, the cross-party government workgroup on pensions.
This project is an example of adversarial designed as coined by DiSalvo. It is not design for politics or political design, but rather design to provoke political discussions. “For democracy to flourish, spaces of confrontation must exist, and contestation must occur. Perhaps the most basic purpose of adversarial design is to make these spaces of confrontation and provide resources and opportunities for others to participate in contestation.” (DiSalvo, C., 2012) This discursive design project is an exploration of designing for political debate, by “articulating agonism through design” (DiSalvo, C., 2012). although I’ve taken this approach I’ve extended the notion of agonism through confrontation and contestation to include raising awareness of political issues through facilitating debate and discussion. My project aims to design tools to engage people in political debate surrounding the Swedish pension system. It is an attempt to “engage in a micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education” (DiSalvo, C., 2012) by collaborating with a grassroots level political activist group, Pensionsrattvisa.
In my project, I intended to work with the group in a collaborative manner, to co-design a tool that will enable and empower them to communicate their campaign messages to a broader reach of people through creating a space and tools to facilitate discussions and debates about the pension system.
I began this project by listening to online feminist podcasts, watching debates on youtube and interacting with online feminist groups and reading news articles which enlightened me to the inequalities and injustices built into pension systems around the developed world, as well as some of the political aspects of how pension systems work. Further reading confirmed that this is a major issue of concern in Sweden, which has sprouted activist groups including Tantpatrullen and Pensionsrättvisa, as well as drawn the attention of political parties, including Feministiskt Initiativ, as well as multiple trade unions. The project kicked-off when I attended a Feministisk Initiativ event where they were using the issue of pensions as part of their campaign to promote their party, and I met Farida, who leads the agenda on pensions with FI. In this project, it was very important for me to remain politically independent and unaffiliated so that I could design for the context of independent campaigning for social justice, rather than for politics or a political context. I also felt like this was the context in which my objective viewpoint was a real asset. Farida told me about Pensionsrättvisa (Pensions Justice), a politically unaffiliated group that campaigns for fairer pensions for groups of people who are disadvantaged or whose work is undervalued by the system. The Pensionsrättvisa group is mainly made up of female 2nd generation migrants to Sweden who feel disappointed, fearful, and cheated by the government that upholds a system that is structurally rigged against them, as well as other major groups such as Swedish women. The group has an intersectional agenda and campaigns to spread awareness for the problems which they hope will eventually lead to a complete overhaul of the system.
The second member of the group that I met was Loretta Platts. I visited her at Stockholms Universitetet, where she works as a researcher investigating pensions. Loretta’s views and opinions were particularly valuable since she was able to provide a fairly objective overview of the pension system and compare it to the UK pension system, on which she has previously worked, and I am somewhat familiar.
It was at this point I began to understand what Pensionsrättvisa were campaigning for- an awareness of the highly privatised system that merits paid work within the Swedish commercial sector, without meriting lower paid care sector and education sector work or other unpaid work such as domestic work. The pensions system mirrors the inequality in the labour market. On top of this, during the working life society places more value on paid work it is possible to value unpaid work in the pensions system and iron out inequalities felt during working life.
Gender is also a key factor here since “Since the end of the 1950s, Sweden has moved from a system of single-earner to double-earner households”, as well as this, “With the major reform of the Swedish pension system in 1998, pensions became more closely linked to the lifetime earnings of the individual.” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) With this system, a parent who takes time from work to look after children is at risk of having a lower pension than their partner who continues working. Groups who are most at risk from losing out are single mothers, and with the rising popularity of women choosing to have children alone, and with 50% of Swedish adults living alone this is a growing issue. “It should be noted that in many countries, the risk of poverty at an older age is higher for women than men” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) so this is not unique to Sweden, but with the state’s focus on individualist policies it’s a problem that the inequalities between genders aren’t ironed out during retirement.
It is also felt that Sweden doesn’t value the contributions of migrants since in the current pension system immigrants need to have lived in Sweden for 40 years (by age 65) to receive the full garatipension, otherwise the pension amount is reduced by a factor for each year until they hit the minimum level of the äldreförsörjningsstöd. “In recent decades Sweden has received an increasingly large number of middle-aged and older migrants, many originating from middle- and low-income countries.”(Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) It is also difficult for these older migrants to obtain a Swedish occupational pension since “the number of years before becoming established in the Swedish labour market as a worker increases rapidly with age at immigration among migrants from middle- and low-income countries.” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) The combination of these factors has a devastating effect on the quality of life for retired migrants.
When I met Loretta I was also convinced to change the way I approached the topic of pension inequality. Prior to this I was convinced that pensions were a problem for older people, however, discussions with her led me to realise that pensions are an issue for young people since they have time to fix the system before it impacts them directly. Going forward from this I decided to focus my inquiries on people younger than 40.
I began my investigation into young peoples relationship to pensions, and pensions’ place on the political agenda by attending a youth political debate at SACO union with members of Pensionsrättvisa. All of the speakers were under 35 and male, and although everything was in Swedish I was still able to grasp that few of the debate topics or issues brought up were of real importance to Pensionsrättvisa, and the speakers seemed entirely ignorant of how the system worked and entirely naïve to the realities of the problems within the pension system. This experience led me to understand where on the journey to a fully reformed fair and equal pension system Pensionsrättvisa is and that is right at the beginning of the journey. I recognised that for the changes they want to see to begin to be discussed they need to shed light on and spread awareness of the injustices in the pension system in both political and general public spheres. I found a distinct lack of visual material to support these discussions, so decided to proceed by developing some visual materials myself. On pensionsmyndigheten.se (the government pension authority) they use triangles represent the parts of the pension. I see these triangles as direct propaganda since the perfect triangle isn’t a reality for many pensioners in Sweden.
I hacked pensionsmyndighetens visual language to make a series of triangles that visually questioned this propaganda and could be used in discussions on equality.
Further frustration is found in that the pension system works well for the ‘ideal citizen’ but punishes those who deviate. In order to facilitate discussions on the idolisation of and advantages felt by ‘perfect citizens,’ I began to work with making and hacking objects, The first objects I hacked were 50s style American dolls of a pilot and air hostess. The woman was depicted as tall, impossibly thin and blonde, the man was also tall and blonde with a muscular physique. They represent a normative, heterosexual white “couple?”. The dolls come with a series of outfits, including multiple work uniforms for different occupations, as well as casual clothes. These dolls shocked and offended people when they were used as a tool to talk about the pension system and its idolisation of white Swedish born middle class working men. However they were not the ideal tool for discussion, since the shock factor got in the way of real discussions of a system that supports prevailing cultural ideals.
For the next iteration of the dolls, I took a different tack, choosing to instead represent the diversity of people living in Sweden. This focus is something that carried throughout the project to my final proposal. I chose to have these dolls either in casual clothing or underwear to represent them without class or occupation, and to focus on race and gender, which are two main factors that disadvantage people within the pension system, irrespective of profession or other factors. These dolls proved to be incredibly useful in workshops with Pensionsrättvisa since they provided a visual and physical representation/ manifestation with which to discuss groups of people who are profoundly disadvantaged in the system. We used the dolls as a tool to provoke empathy and to visualise the system on a human level while reading academic reports. Since the reports represent groups as statistics and use complicated terms and not always obvious demographic groups that can make the report read as biased, the dolls made it easier to dissect and analyse the information through discussion.
I have explored creating space for protest in a range of environments during the course of my project as well as considering utilising humour in my approach. An example of a project that does this is “Kittens Editorial Collective features radical leftist writing only alongside pictures of cute kittens” … “In the absence of “properly political” visual expression at hand, the stuff that is readily available, the internet’s equivalent of cardboard gets politicised. Another example of a campaigner that used humour is Alice Skinner, a female cartoonist that uses “tongue in cheek illustrations” to raise feminist and equality discussions. Although most of her work is displayed on virtual platforms, I find it inspiring as the cartoon medium makes it accessible to wider audiences through humour. “The joke has the capacity to resist and overturn the frame of reference imposed by any political status quo” I explored using humour to highlight social injustices by creating some memes about the system.
Although I found the humour to be powerful for highlighting specific issues, the complexity of the pensions system was lost in this format. Perhaps a more skilled comedian could find ways to navigate and represent complex issues, however I decided to stick with using artefacts and visualisations as empathy tools for understanding injustices.
As my understanding of the pension system grew, as did my desire to help others learn about the complex system. I was also interested in bringing protest into the home environment and exploring how children and their toys and games could form part of an activist protest.
I decided to work with the monopoly game board and game structure since I felt that it could act as a provocative symbol for the intrinsically financial and capitalist aspects of the pension system. I took a similar stance to Kristi Hollinger, with rules for monopoly in a stratified society (University of Missouri, n.d.) by rigging the game so some were privileged and others disadvantaged, by assigning personas to the 2nd generation of paper dolls I had been using and using the dolls as counters in the game. Some of the disadvantages that I built into the game included being a migrant, having children, taking extended sick leave from work and looking after elderly parents or children who need extra care.
I tested the game with some young people who were unfamiliar with the pension system and they found it shocking and educational, as well as fun. However, similarly to the 50s American paper dolls the game provided shock but didn’t facilitate discussion.
Next, I brought the monopoly game and dolls to a meeting with members of Tantpatrullen. I asked them, to tell me about the problems in the pension system, which they did at both a systematic level and through their own personal stories. I asked them to use clay to visualise the injustices in the pension system. This garnered a range of forms and representations, but to my surprise, they also “hacked” the monopoly board and dolls to illustrate their points.
I found their painful stories emotional, and I gained a deeper understanding of the suffering caused by an unfair system. However, each individual story is highly complex, and as such, make it difficult to visualise broader systemic flaws that affect many people. It is easy to get caught up in personal stories, however, they do not communicate the built-in systemic injustices. With this insight, I felt it to be important to find a language that could communicate broad injustices for groups of people.
I decided to upgrade my paper dolls to Barbie and Ken dolls since I felt that they were life-like enough to provoke empathy, whilst not being seen as real individuals. I was first drawn to Barbie and Ken as I see them to be an example of idealised human form in contemporary life. The pension system can be said to be based on the “ideal” citizen, as it unfairly favours the Swedish born male. In contemporary Swedish society, Barbie is seen as a controversial toy, because it is said to promote unrealistic ideals to children. I think that the pension system should also be a source of debate for also only representing “ideal” citizens.
I also recognised that the key function the monopoly board played for Tantpatrullen was in providing a platform to discuss the multi-faceted and complex issues related to the pension system. I made the decision to scale up the game board to be a rug that would create a space to discuss the pension system and to use visuals such as those from the visualisation workshop with Tantpatrullen to facilitate those conversations.
I also like to considered utilising elements of craft, “The beauty of craft is that at first, it can seduce its audience. People are drawn in by the sheer skill and time taken to create a piece. I believe this allows a dialogue to open up where the viewer can be challenged intellectually. There is an expectation that craft work is gentle, decorative and safe- but once an audience is engaged it is the ideal place to explore radical and controversial ideas.” (Flood & Grindon, 2014) The pussyhat project is an example of a craft-based feminist protest object that focused on inclusion.
The object acted as a symbol for their campaign, whilst also uniting people through making the hats. By publishing an open source knitting pattern online, the pussyhat project allowed those who were unable to attend a Women’s’ March in 2017 to participate. The project explored notions of women’s’ craft and the power of the handmade to enable women to feel like they could physically make a difference to the current social situation. This example is particularly important since the project was so widely adopted. However, in the context of 2018 Women’s marches, there have been questions of whether pussyhats are truly inclusive since some say they are a literal symbol of white female genitalia, and therefore exclude women of colour and promote Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. I would like to ensure my work is as inclusive as possible, whilst raising social issues.
I intended to make the rug a tool that would be as useful as possible, and something that would be as adopted and used by campaigners so I decided to use collaborative design techniques with Pensionsrättvisa to design some of the elements of the rug to represent issues of importance to them.
I held a workshop where like with Tantpatrullen I asked them to use coloured clay to visualise the injustices they saw in the pension system. Each member came up with several symbols, which were a mixture of both issues on a systemic level, as well as some of their personal experiences. I then asked them to cut out shapes from coloured, patterned paper to symbolise these injustices.
These visualisations formed the basis for the aesthetic design of the rug. I took some aesthetic and process inspiration from Matisse’ cut-outs, as I developed the brightly coloured abstract forms on the rug by collaging the elements from the workshop with my own symbols and visualisations of what I had learned was important to the group. I also drew on Josef Frank’s rugs as an aesthetic reference. They also employed a strong use of colour, and abstract shapes that dominate a room.
At the co-design workshop, the members of Pensionsrättvisa began to use their visualisations to debate amongst themselves about the system, as well as to educate myself about some of the injustices, the carpet creates a physical space on a larger scale to do the same thing.
I ideated and sketched out ideas before presenting a full-scale paper model in my 75% presentation. After the presentation, I took the prototype back to Pensionsrättvisa where we tested it with passers-by and refined the final design.
My proposal is a large rug, size 8A0 (3364 × 2378) that creates a space in which to discuss the pension system as well as acts as a tool to facilitate these discussions and debates. Since I used co-design methods to create the rug the people I have been working with feel engaged with the project and like they have real ownership over the outcome. An example of this is that I directly took the red wave-like symbol from the co-design workshop, and now it acts as a visual reference for a personal narrative.
The rug is made up of sections that represent different groups of people in the system, as well as allowing the rug to be transported easily in several pieces. The colours are bright and eye-catching so that the rug will be seen from a distance. A key part of the design is that the shapes on the rug are fairly abstract representations of concepts, which facilitates the dialogue between the people standing on the rug. Since different activists have different focuses the rug will change meaning depending on who is using it.
Summary and Reflections
In this project, I set out to design boundary objects to empower and enable Pensionsrättvisa to bring the pensions debate to wider audiences.
In this project, I challenged myself to research and collaborate with several groups of people and to practice and develop my co-design methods in a truly collaborative participatory design project.
I found the topic of the Swedish pension system to be multi-faceted, sensitive and complex since it personally affects the quality of life of everyone who lives in Sweden, and those who I collaborated with had personal first-hand experiences of the injustices in the system.
My proposal is not a critique of the system, nor does it focus on my personal views, however, it is my visualisation of the campaign story and personal narratives of Pensionsrättvisa in the form of a boundary activist object that functions as a campaign tool for the group.
I have found it incredibly rewarding to work with members of Tantpatrullen and to collaborate with Pensionsrättvisa. I intend to continue working with Pensionsrättvisa beyond this project to further develop the monopoly game as well as other games that fulfill the need for non-biased pedagogic tools to explain and teach about the pension system.
During the exhibition, it was fantastic to see members of Pensionsrättvisa using the rug as I’d intended. It was difficult initially to get people to walk on the rug, but after a few days the rug started to get a bit dirty and people felt more confident walking on it. I think this is an issue relating to the context of the exhibition, and shouldn’t be a problem when the rug is in other environments. I could tell that the members of Pensionsrättvisa enjoyed using the rug as a tool, and also telling people about their involvement in making the rug. The rug seemed to be also well received by members of the public, who felt able to talk about their own experiences with the pension system, with the help of a visual aid.
I hope that the rug will prove to be an invaluable tool for Pensionsrättvisa going forward and that it will contribute as a visual and physical reference in the growing pensions debate.
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