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January 23, 2024

Transforming societies through education

Opinion image

The long-term impact of Sweden's comprehensive sex education reform

Sex education, a vital component of educational systems worldwide, is currently at a crossroads. While there is a strong global push for comprehensive sex education, encompassing gender, life skills, and social norms, a resurgence of conservative thought is advocating for family-led sex education and abstinence-only programs. This trend is particularly noticeable in parts of the US and European countries like Poland and Hungary, creating a stark contrast with the more inclusive approach of comprehensive sex education.

Sweden was a pioneer in comprehensive sex education in the 1940s and 50s. In a recent IZA discussion paper, we delve into the long-term impacts of this innovative approach on those who experienced it firsthand in their school days. Using the reform as a natural experiment, we have applied cutting-edge difference-in-differences methods to rich data, exploring how educational curricula can shape social norms and impact personal well-being.

The key finding from our analysis is strikingly positive. The reform met all the individual outcomes that the reform aimed to address. It intended to foster abstinence, rational decision-making in sexuality and family life, and notably, empower teenage girls to make independent sexual choices. The results? A notable decrease in sexual activity, unplanned pregnancies, and rushed marriages, affecting both men and women. Plus, it influenced the timing of marriage and parenthood, particularly after age 25.

Beyond personal lives, Swedish comprehensive sex education was a pioneering social intervention during the establishment of the social democratic welfare state. It educated adolescents to be responsible citizens, transcending family matters. The reform boosted individual earnings by up to 10.9%, highlighting the value of non-cognitive skills, such as responsibility. It also fostered a new identity of active, socially responsible citizens, encouraging women to join the workforce and inspiring careers of both men and women for the common good.

In a broader policy context, we revisited a question raised by the 1940s-reformers: Can curricula reshape social norms eventually? Can teaching personal and collective responsibility impact pupils, a sizable demographic group, in the long run? Our findings suggest that the effects of the reform extended even to career choices of the next generation of girls. Ultimately, as evidenced by the political outcomes spanning two generations, the sex education reform increased collective civic engagement by 13%, thereby bolstering democracy itself.

© Volha Lazuka and Annika Elwert

Volha Lazuka is Associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, Visiting research fellow at Lund University, and IZA Research Affiliate
Annika Elwert is Associate senior lecturer at Lund University

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.

Related IZA World of Labor content:

Teenage childbearing and labor market implications for women by Phillip B. Levine
Does education strengthen the life skills of adolescents? By Stefanie Schurer
Fertility postponement and labor market outcomes by Massimiliano Bratti

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash