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Sweden – Economic Growth and Structural Change, 1800-2000

Lennart Schön, Lund University

This article presents an overview of Swedish economic growth performance internationally and statistically and an account of major trends in Swedish economic development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1

Modern economic growth in Sweden took off in the middle of the nineteenth century and in international comparative terms Sweden has been rather successful during the past 150 years. This is largely thanks to the transformation of the economy and society from agrarian to industrial. Sweden is a small economy that has been open to foreign influences and highly dependent upon the world economy. Thus, successive structural changes have put their imprint upon modern economic growth.

Swedish Growth in International Perspective

The century-long period from the 1870s to the 1970s comprises the most successful part of Swedish industrialization and growth. On a per capita basis the Japanese economy performed equally well (see Table 1). The neighboring Scandinavian countries also grew rapidly but at a somewhat slower rate than Sweden. Growth in the rest of industrial Europe and in the U.S. was clearly outpaced. Growth in the entire world economy, as measured by Maddison, was even slower.

Table 1 Annual Economic Growth Rates per Capita in Industrial Nations and the World Economy, 1871-2005

Year Sweden Rest of Nordic Countries Rest of Western Europe United States Japan World Economy
1871/1875-1971/1975 2.4 2.0 1.7 1.8 2.4 1.5
1971/1975-2001/2005 1.7 2.2 1.9 2.0 2.2 1.6

Note: Rest of Nordic countries = Denmark, Finland and Norway. Rest of Western Europe = Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Source: Maddison (2006); Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007); World Bank, World Development Indicator 2000; Groningen Growth and Development Centre,

The Swedish advance in a global perspective is illustrated in Figure 1. In the mid-nineteenth century the Swedish average income level was close to the average global level (as measured by Maddison). In a European perspective Sweden was a rather poor country. By the 1970s, however, the Swedish income level was more than three times higher than the global average and among the highest in Europe.

Figure 1
Swedish GDP per Capita in Relation to World GDP per Capita, 1870-2004
(Nine year moving averages)
Swedish GDP per Capita in Relation to World GDP per Capita, 1870-2004
Sources: Maddison (2006); Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007).

Note. The annual variation in world production between Maddison’s benchmarks 1870, 1913 and 1950 is estimated from his supply of annual country series.

To some extent this was a catch-up story. Sweden was able to take advantage of technological and organizational advances made in Western Europe and North America. Furthermore, Scandinavian countries with resource bases such as Sweden and Finland had been rather disadvantaged as long as agriculture was the main source of income. The shift to industry expanded the resource base and industrial development – directed both to a growing domestic market but even more to a widening world market – became the main lever of growth from the late nineteenth century.

Catch-up is not the whole story, though. In many industrial areas Swedish companies took a position at the technological frontier from an early point in time. Thus, in certain sectors there was also forging ahead,2 quickening the pace of structural change in the industrializing economy. Furthermore, during a century of fairly rapid growth new conditions have arisen that have required profound adaptation and a renewal of entrepreneurial activity as well as of economic policies.

The slow down in Swedish growth from the 1970s may be considered in this perspective. While in most other countries growth from the 1970s fell only in relation to growth rates in the golden post-war ages, Swedish growth fell clearly below the historical long run growth trend. It also fell to a very low level internationally. The 1970s certainly meant the end to a number of successful growth trajectories in the industrial society. At the same time new growth forces appeared with the electronic revolution, as well as with the advance of a more service based economy. It may be the case that this structural change hit the Swedish economy harder than most other economies, at least of the industrial capitalist economies. Sweden was forced into a transformation of its industrial economy and of its political economy in the 1970s and the 1980s that was more profound than in most other Western economies.

A Statistical Overview, 1800-2000

Swedish economic development since 1800 may be divided into six periods with different growth trends, as well as different composition of growth forces.

Table 2 Annual Growth Rates in per Capita Production, Total Investments, Foreign Trade and Population in Sweden, 1800-2000

Period Per capita GDP Investments Foreign Trade Population
1800-1840 0.6 0.3 0.7 0.8
1840-1870 1.2 3.0 4.6 1.0
1870-1910 1.7 3.0 3.3 0.6
1910-1950 2.2 4.2 2.0 0.5
1950-1975 3.6 5.5 6.5 0.6
1975-2000 1.4 2.1 4.3 0.4
1800-2000 1.9 3.4 3.8 0.7

Source: Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007).

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the agricultural sector dominated and growth was slow in all aspects but in population. Still there was per capita growth, but to some extent this was a recovery from the low levels during the Napoleonic Wars. The acceleration during the next period around the mid-nineteenth century is marked in all aspects. Investments and foreign trade became very dynamic ingredients with the onset of industrialization. They were to remain so during the following periods as well. Up to the 1970s per capita growth rates increased for each successive period. In an international perspective it is most notable that per capita growth rates increased also in the interwar period, despite the slow down in foreign trade. The interwar period is crucial for the long run relative success of Swedish economic growth. The decisive culmination in the post-war period with high growth rates in investments and in foreign trade stands out as well, as the deceleration in all aspects in the late twentieth century.

An analysis in a traditional growth accounting framework gives a long term pattern with certain periodic similarities (see Table 3). Thus, total factor productivity growth has increased over time up to the 1970s, only to decrease to its long run level in the last decades. This deceleration in productivity growth may be looked upon either as a failure of the “Swedish Model” to accommodate new growth forces or as another case of the “productivity paradox” in lieu of the information technology revolution.3

Table 3 Total Factor Productivity (TFP) Growth and Relative Contribution of Capital, Labor and TFP to GDP Growth in Sweden, 1840-2000

Period TFP Growth Capital Labor TFP
1840-1870 0.4 55 27 18
1870-1910 0.7 50 18 32
1910-1950 1.0 39 24 37
1950-1975 2.1 45 7 48
1975-2000 1.0 44 1 55
1840-2000 1.1 45 16 39

Source: See Table 2.

In terms of contribution to overall growth, TFP has increased its share for every period. The TFP share was low in the 1840s but there was a very marked increase with the onset of modern industrialization from the 1870s. In relative terms TFP reached its highest level so far from the 1970s, thus indicating an increasing role of human capital, technology and knowledge in economic growth. The role of capital accumulation was markedly more pronounced in early industrialization with the build-up of a modern infrastructure and with urbanization, but still capital did retain much of its importance during the twentieth century. Thus its contribution to growth during the post-war Golden Ages was significant with very high levels of material investments. At the same time TFP growth culminated with positive structural shifts, as well as increased knowledge intensity complementary to the investments. Labor has in quantitative terms progressively reduced its role in economic growth. One should observe, however, the relatively large importance of labor in Swedish economic growth during the interwar period. This was largely due to demographic factors and to the employment situation that will be further commented upon.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, growth was still led by the primary production of agriculture, accompanied by services and transport. Secondary production in manufacturing and building was, on the contrary, very stagnant. From the 1840s the industrial sector accelerated, increasingly supported by transport and communications, as well as by private services. The sectoral shift from agriculture to industry became more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century when industry and transportation boomed, while agricultural growth decelerated into subsequent stagnation. In the post-war period the volume of services, both private and public, increased strongly, although still not outpacing industry. From the 1970s the focus shifted to private services and to transport and communications, indicating fundamental new prerequisites of growth.

Table 4 Growth Rates of Industrial Sectors, 1800-2000

Period Agriculture Industrial and Hand Transport and Communic. Building Private Services Public Services GDP
1800-1840 1.5 0.3 1.1 -0.1 1.4 1.5 1.3
1840-1870 2.1 3.7 1.8 2.4 2.7 0.8 2.3
1870-1910 1.0 5.0 3.9 1.3 2.7 1.0 2.3
1910-1950 0.0 3.5 4.9 1.4 2.2 2.2 2.7
1950-1975 0.4 5.1 4.4 3.8 4.3 4.0 4.3
1975-2000 -0.4 1.9 2.6 -0.8 2.2 0.2 1.8
1800-2000 0.9 3.8 3.7 1.8 2.7 1.7 2.6

Source: See Table 2.

Note: Private services are exclusive of dwelling services.

Growth and Transformation in the Agricultural Society of the Early Nineteenth Century

During the first half of the nineteenth century the agricultural sector and the rural society dominated the Swedish economy. Thus, more than three-quarters of the population were occupied in agriculture while roughly 90 percent lived in the countryside. Many non-agrarian activities such as the iron industry, the saw mill industry and many crafts as well as domestic, religious and military services were performed in rural areas. Although growth was slow, a number of structural and institutional changes occurred that paved the way for future modernization.

Most important was the transformation of agriculture. From the late eighteenth century commercialization of the primary sector intensified. Particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, the domestic market for food stuffs widened. The population increase in combination with the temporary decrease in imports stimulated enclosures and reclamation of land, the introduction of new crops and new methods and above all it stimulated a greater degree of market orientation. In the decades after the war the traditional Swedish trade deficit in grain even shifted to a trade surplus with an increasing exportation of oats, primarily to Britain.

Concomitant with the agricultural transformation were a number of infrastructural and institutional changes. Domestic transportation costs were reduced through investments in canals and roads. Trade of agricultural goods was liberalized, reducing transaction costs and integrating the domestic market even further. Trading companies became more effective in attracting agricultural surpluses for more distant markets. In support of the agricultural sector new means of information were introduced by, for example, agricultural societies that published periodicals on innovative methods and on market trends. Mortgage societies were established to supply agriculture with long term capital for investments that in turn intensified the commercialization of production.

All these elements meant a profound institutional change in the sense that the price mechanism became much more effective in directing human behavior. Furthermore, a greater interest in information and in the main instrument of information, namely literacy, was infused. Traditionally, popular literacy had been upheld by the church, mainly devoted to knowledge of the primary Lutheran texts. In the new economic environment, literacy was secularized and transformed into a more functional literacy marked by the advent of schools for public education in the 1840s.

The Breakthrough of Modern Economic Growth in the Mid-nineteenth Century

In the decades around the middle of the nineteenth century new dynamic forces appeared that accelerated growth. Most notably foreign trade expanded by leaps and bounds in the 1850s and 1860s. With new export sectors, industrial investments increased. Furthermore, railways became the most prominent component of a new infrastructure and with this construction a new component in Swedish growth was introduced, heavy capital imports.

The upswing in industrial growth in Western Europe during the 1850s, in combination with demand induced through the Crimean War, led to a particularly strong expansion in Swedish exports with sharp price increases for three staple goods – bar iron, wood and oats. The charcoal-based Swedish bar iron had been the traditional export good and had completely dominated Swedish exports until mid-nineteenth century. Bar iron met, however, increasingly strong competition from British and continental iron and steel industries and Swedish exports had stagnated in the first half of the nineteenth century. The upswing in international demand, following the diffusion of industrialization and railway construction, gave an impetus to the modernization of Swedish steel production in the following decades.

The saw mill industry was a really new export industry that grew dramatically in the 1850s and 1860s. Up until this time, the vast forests in Sweden had been regarded mainly as a fuel resource for the iron industry and for household heating and local residential construction. With sharp price increases on the Western European market from the 1840s and 1850s, the resources of the sparsely populated northern part of Sweden suddenly became valuable. A formidable explosion of saw mill construction at the mouths of the rivers along the northern coastline followed. Within a few decades Swedish merchants, as well as Norwegian, German, British and Dutch merchants, became saw mill owners running large-scale capitalist enterprises at the fringe of the European civilization.

Less dramatic but equally important was the sudden expansion of Swedish oat exports. The market for oats appeared mainly in Britain, where short-distance transportation in rapidly growing urban centers increased the fleet of horses. Swedish oats became an important energy resource during the decades around the mid-nineteenth century. In Sweden this had a special significance since oats could be cultivated on rather barren and marginal soils and Sweden was richly endowed with such soils. Thus, the market for oats with strongly increasing prices stimulated further the commercialization of agriculture and the diffusion of new methods. It was furthermore so since oats for the market were a substitute for local flax production – also thriving on barren soils – while domestic linen was increasingly supplanted by factory-produced cotton goods.

The Swedish economy was able to respond to the impetus from Western Europe during these decades, to diffuse the new influences in the economy and to integrate them in its development very successfully. The barriers to change seem to have been weak. This is partly explained by the prior transformation of agriculture and the evolution of market institutions in the rural economy. People reacted to the price mechanism. New social classes of commercial peasants, capitalists and wage laborers had emerged in an era of domestic market expansion, with increased regional specialization, and population increase.

The composition of export goods also contributed to the diffusion of participation and to the diffusion of export income. Iron, wood and oats meant both a regional and a social distribution. The value of prior marginal resources such as soils in the south and forests in the north was inflated. The technology was simple and labor intensive in industry, forestry, agriculture and transportation. The demand for unskilled labor increased strongly that was to put an imprint upon Swedish wage development in the second half of the nineteenth century. Commercial houses and industrial companies made profits but export income was distributed to many segments of the population.

The integration of the Swedish economy was further enforced through initiatives taken by the State. The parliament decision in the 1850s to construct the railway trunk lines meant, first, a more direct involvement by the State in the development of a modern infrastructure and, second, new principles of finance since the State had to rely upon capital imports. At the same time markets for goods, labor and capital were liberalized and integration both within Sweden and with the world market deepened. The Swedish adoption of the Gold Standard in 1873 put a final stamp on this institutional development.

A Second Industrial Revolution around 1900

In the late nineteenth century, particularly in the 1880s, international competition became fiercer for agriculture and early industrial branches. The integration of world markets led to falling prices and stagnation in the demand for Swedish staple goods such as iron, sawn wood and oats. Profits were squeezed and expansion thwarted. On the other hand there arose new markets. Increasing wages intensified mechanization both in agriculture and in industry. The demand increased for more sophisticated machinery equipment. At the same time consumer demand shifted towards better foodstuff – such as milk, butter and meat – and towards more fabricated industrial goods.

The decades around the turn of the twentieth century meant a profound structural change in the composition of Swedish industrial expansion that was crucial for long term growth. New and more sophisticated enterprises were founded and expanded particularly from the 1890s, in the upswing after the Baring Crisis.

The new enterprises were closely related to the so called Second Industrial Revolution in which scientific knowledge and more complex engineering skills were main components. The electrical motor became especially important in Sweden. A new development block was created around this innovation that combined engineering skills in companies such as ASEA (later ABB) with a large demand in energy-intensive processes and with the large supply of hydropower in Sweden.4 Financing the rapid development of this large block engaged commercial banks, knitting closer ties between financial capital and industry. The State, once again, engaged itself in infrastructural development in support of electrification, still resorting to heavy capital imports.

A number of innovative industries were founded in this period – all related to increased demand for mechanization and engineering skills. Companies such as AGA, ASEA, Ericsson, Separator (AlfaLaval) and SKF have been labeled “enterprises of genius” and all are represented with renowned inventors and innovators. This was, of course, not an entirely Swedish phenomenon. These branches developed simultaneously on the Continent, particularly in nearby Germany and in the U.S. Knowledge and innovative stimulus was diffused among these economies. The question is rather why this new development became so strong in Sweden so that new industries within a relatively short period of time were able to supplant old resource-based industries as main driving forces of industrialization.

Traditions of engineering skills were certainly important, developed in old heavy industrial branches such as iron and steel industries and stimulated further by State initiatives such as railway construction or, more directly, the founding of the Royal Institute of Technology. But apart from that the economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century fundamentally changed relative factor prices and the profitability of allocation of resources in different lines of production.

The relative increase in the wages of unskilled labor had been stimulated by the composition of early exports in Sweden. This was much reinforced by two components in the further development – emigration and capital imports.

Within approximately the same period, 1850-1910, the Swedish economy received a huge amount of capital mainly from Germany and France, while delivering an equally huge amount of labor to primarily the U.S. Thus, Swedish relative factor prices changed dramatically. Swedish interest rates remained at rather high levels compared to leading European countries until 1910, due to a continuous large demand for capital in Sweden, but relative wages rose persistently (see Table 5). As in the rest of Scandinavia, wage increases were much stronger than GDP growth in Sweden indicating a shift in income distribution in favor of labor, particularly in favor of unskilled labor, during this period of increased world market integration.

Table 5 Annual Increase in Real Wages of Unskilled Labor and Annual GDP Growth per Capita, 1870-1910

Country Annual real wage increase, 1870-1910 Annual GDP growth per capita, 1870-1910
Sweden 2.8 1.7
Denmark and Norway 2.6 1.3
France, Germany and Great Britain 1.1 1.2
United States 1.1 1.6

Sources: Wages from Williamson (1995); GDP growth see Table 1.

Relative profitability fell in traditional industries, which exploited rich natural resources and cheap labor, while more sophisticated industries were favored. But the causality runs both ways. Had this structural shift with the growth of new and more profitable industries not occurred, the Swedish economy would not have been able to sustain the wage increase.5

Accelerated Growth in the War-stricken Period, 1910-1950

The most notable feature of long term Swedish growth is the acceleration in growth rates during the period 1910-1950, which in Europe at large was full of problems and catastrophes.6 Thus, Swedish per capita production grew at 2.2 percent annually while growth in the rest of Scandinavia was somewhat below 2 percent and in the rest of Europe hovered at 1 percent. The Swedish acceleration was based mainly on three pillars.

First, the structure created at the end of the nineteenth century was very viable, with considerable long term growth potential. It consisted of new industries and new infrastructures that involved industrialists and financial capitalists, as well as public sector support. It also involved industries meeting a relatively strong demand in war times, as well as in the interwar period, both domestically and abroad.

Second, the First World War meant an immense financial bonus to the Swedish market. A huge export surplus at inflated prices during the war led to the domestication of the Swedish national debt. This in turn further capitalized the Swedish financial market, lowering interest rates and ameliorating sequential innovative activity in industry. A domestic money market arose that provided the State with new instruments for economic policy that were to become important for the implementation of the new social democratic “Keynesian” policies of the 1930s.

Third, demographic development favored the Swedish economy in this period. The share of the economically active age group 15-64 grew substantially. This was due partly to the fact that prior emigration had sized down cohorts that now would have become old age pensioners. Comparatively low mortality of young people during the 1910s, as well as an end to mass emigration further enhanced the share of the active population. Both the labor market and domestic demand was stimulated in particular during the 1930s when the household forming age group of 25-30 years increased.

The augmented labor supply would have increased unemployment had it not been combined with the richer supply of capital and innovative industrial development that met elastic demand both domestically and in Europe.

Thus, a richer supply of both capital and labor stimulated the domestic market in a period when international market integration deteriorated. Above all it stimulated the development of mass production of consumption goods based upon the innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution. Significant new enterprises that emanated from the interwar period were very much related to the new logic of the industrial society, such as Volvo, SAAB, Electrolux, Tetra Pak and IKEA.

The Golden Age of Growth, 1950-1975

The Swedish economy was clearly part of the European Golden Age of growth, although Swedish acceleration from the 1950s was less pronounced than in the rest of Western Europe, which to a much larger extent had been plagued by wars and crises.7 The Swedish post-war period was characterized primarily by two phenomena – the full fruition of development blocks based upon the great innovations of the late nineteenth century (the electrical motor and the combustion engine) and the cementation of the “Swedish Model” for the welfare state. These two phenomena were highly complementary.

The Swedish Model had basically two components. One was a greater public responsibility for social security and for the creation and preservation of human capital. This led to a rapid increase in the supply of public services in the realms of education, health and children’s day care as well as to increases in social security programs and in public savings for transfers to pensioners program. The consequence was high taxation. The other component was a regulation of labor and capital markets. This was the most ingenious part of the model, constructed to sustain growth in the industrial society and to increase equality in combination with the social security program and taxation.

The labor market program was the result of negotiations between trade unions and the employers’ organization. It was labeled “solidaristic wage policy” with two elements. One was to achieve equal wages for equal work, regardless of individual companies’ ability to pay. The other element was to raise the wage level in low paid areas and thus to compress the wage distribution. The aim of the program was actually to increase the speed in the structural rationalization of industries and to eliminate less productive companies and branches. Labor should be transferred to the most productive export-oriented sectors. At the same time income should be distributed more equally. A drawback of the solidaristic wage policy from an egalitarian point of view was that profits soared in the productive sectors since wage increases were held back. However, capital market regulations hindered the ability of high profits to be converted into very high incomes for shareholders. Profits were taxed very low if they were converted into further investments within the company (the timing in the use of the funds was controlled by the State in its stabilization policy) but taxed heavily if distributed to share holders. The result was that investments within existing profitable companies were supported and actually subsidized while the mobility of capital dwindled and the activity at the stock market fell.

As long as the export sectors grew, the program worked well.8 Companies founded in the late nineteenth century and in the interwar period developed into successful multinationals in engineering with machinery, auto industries and shipbuilding, as well as in resource-based industries of steel and paper. The expansion of the export sector was the main force behind the high growth rates and the productivity increases but the sector was strongly supported by public investments or publicly subsidized investments in infrastructure and residential construction.

Hence, during the Golden Age of growth the development blocks around electrification and motorization matured in a broad modernization of the society, where mass consumption and mass production was supported by social programs, by investment programs and by labor market policy.

Crisis and Restructuring from the 1970s

In the 1970s and early 1980s a number of industries – such as steel works, pulp and paper, shipbuilding, and mechanical engineering – ran into crisis. New global competition, changing consumer behavior and profound innovative renewal, especially in microelectronics, made some of the industrial pillars of the Swedish Model crumble. At the same time the disadvantages of the old model became more apparent. It put obstacles to flexibility and to entrepreneurial initiatives and it reduced individual incentives for mobility. Thus, while the Swedish Model did foster rationalization of existing industries well adapted to the post-war period, it did not support more profound transformation of the economy.

One should not exaggerate the obstacles to transformation, though. The Swedish economy was still very open in the market for goods and many services, and the pressure to transform increased rapidly. During the 1980s a far-reaching structural change within industry as well as in economic policy took place, engaging both private and public actors. Shipbuilding was almost completely discontinued, pulp industries were integrated into modernized paper works, the steel industry was concentrated and specialized, and the mechanical engineering was digitalized. New and more knowledge-intensive growth industries appeared in the 1980s, such as IT-based telecommunication, pharmaceutical industries, and biotechnology, as well as new service industries.

During the 1980s some of the constituent components of the Swedish model were weakened or eliminated. Centralized negotiations and solidaristic wage policy disappeared. Regulations in the capital market were dismantled under the pressure of increasing international capital flows simultaneously with a forceful revival of the stock market. The expansion of public sector services came to an end and the taxation system was reformed with a reduction of marginal tax rates. Thus, Swedish economic policy and welfare system became more adapted to the main European level that facilitated the Swedish application of membership and final entrance into the European Union in 1995.

It is also clear that the period from the 1970s to the early twenty-first century comprise two growth trends, before and after 1990 respectively. During the 1970s and 1980s, growth in Sweden was very slow and marked by the great structural problems that the Swedish economy had to cope with. The slow growth prior to 1990 does not signify stagnation in a real sense, but rather the transformation of industrial structures and the reformulation of economic policy, which did not immediately result in a speed up of growth but rather in imbalances and bottle necks that took years to eliminate. From the 1990s up to 2005 Swedish growth accelerated quite forcefully in comparison with most Western economies.9 Thus, the 1980s may be considered as a Swedish case of “the productivity paradox,” with innovative renewal but with a delayed acceleration of productivity and growth from the 1990s – although a delayed productivity effect of more profound transformation and radical innovative behavior is not paradoxical.

Table 6 Annual Growth Rates per Capita, 1971-2005

Period Sweden Rest of Nordic Countries Rest of Western Europe United States World Economy
1971/1975-1991/1995 1.2 2.1 1.8 1.6 1.4
1991/1995-2001/2005 2.4 2.5 1.7 2.1 2.1

Sources: See Table 1.

The recent acceleration in growth may also indicate that some of the basic traits from early industrialization still pertain to the Swedish economy – an international attitude in a small open economy fosters transformation and adaptation of human skills to new circumstances as a major force behind long term growth.


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Citation: Schön, Lennart. “Sweden – Economic Growth and Structural Change, 1800-2000″. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL