Gunnar Andersson. Foto: Leila Zoubir/Stockholms universitet
Gunnar Andersson. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholms universitet

Higher risk of divorce in industries with even gender distribution. Women in same-sex relationships marry and divorce to a greater extent than men in same-sex relationships. The challenges with an aging population and fewer babies being born. These are all examples of research in Demography, Population Studies, that Gunnar Andersson is or has been involved in.

Early on in his career as a researcher, he was involved in developing European demographic research at the Max-Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

Today he has held the chair in Demography at Stockholm University for seven years. Having the chair, or professorship,  means that he coordinates the research at SUDA, Stockholm University’s Demography Unit at the Department of Sociology.

His interest in Demography was aroused already as a child.

“When I was a kid, I used to sit up waiting for the election results to come in on TV. And there Erland Hoffsten, a statistician and demographer who wrote the first basic book in Demography, presented figures in an exciting way”, said Gunnar Andersson when we spoke to him earlier.

Found Demography factual – not “wishy-washy”

In spite of that, his study course was a bit “winding”. 
After studying a variety of subjects from physics and chemistry to economic history and Arabic at Lund University in the late 1980s, Gunnar Andersson graduated at the bachelor’s level in statistics.

“The last course I took was a Demography course and I thought that the subject seemed fun. But then I had already studied a lot at the university so I did not pursue this further. But then I got my first job as a statistician, making population forecasts for the Region Stockholm”, he said. 

Region Stockholm is the administrative body that is responsible for all publicly-financed healthcare and public transport in Stockholm County.

What he liked with Demography was primarily that it was about large amounts of data, data that hide something interesting for the researcher to discover. He also enjoyed the statistical methods connected with Demography, and the fact that the subject was factual (and “not wishy-washy”). 

After graduation – but before the first job working as a demographer – he made a memorable trip for a full year throughout Eastern Europe and on to Turkey, Egypt and Ethiopia.

“I went through the whole of Eastern Europe country by country. When we arrived in Turkey we saw on TV that the Berlin wall had fallen and that the whole system was about to collapse. But I got to see the whole old system before it did”.

At Region Stockholm, Gunnar Andersson took extra demography courses at Stockholm University to be able to make better forecasts. He was then “dragged in to the doctoral program” by Jan Hoem, who at the time held the chair in Demography at Stockholm University.

Jan Hoem, who passed away in 2017, was in addition to being his supervisor also a mentor to Gunnar Andersson for many years after completing his PhD. Jan Hoem founded Stockholm University Demography Unit in 1983, and was a driving force behind Swedish demographic research during the 1980s and 1990s.

Participated in developing European demographic research

In 1999, the same year that Gunnar Andersson defended his dissertation on childbearing, marriage and divorce in Sweden, Jan Hoem was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. Gunnar Andersson was also recruited to work at the institute as a researcher. Together with Jan Hoem, he got to participate in developing European demographic research.

“When I moved to Rostock, my plan was to work there for about five years, continue to Paris or Vienna and further south through different academic jobs to finally retire in Spain or Italy." 

"I feel better in a warmer climate with a livelier everyday life. But I work with Swedish and Nordic register data, and as a demographer there is no better data in the world than these. So, it became professionally logical to move back home”, said Gunnar Andersson.

He refers to the longitudinal register data that Sweden and the other Nordic countries have over their entire populations when it comes to population events such as births, deaths, migrations, marriages and divorces.

What is your vision for the Stockholm University Demography Unit?

"That vision is almost already achieved. When I started here Elizabeth Thomson had the professorship, and together we have built up a comprehensive research unit in Demography. Previously, we mostly did research on fertility and family dynamics, but now we also have mortality, migration and integration research which means that we cover all aspects of Demography. We have also recruited internationally so that we now have expertise from different countries", said Gunnar Andersson.

Meanwhile, SUDA has had three major research programs: a ten-year program based on European comparative research, The Linnaeus Center on Social Policy and Family Dynamics in Europe, SPaDE, with Elizabeth Thomson as principal investigator, a Nordic register-based research project, SUNDEM, with Gunnar as principal investigator, and an EU project on family dynamics in Europe, Families and Societies, with Livia Oláh as principal investigator.

"My vision was to build something so sustainable that everything doesn’t just implode when these programs and their funding end. We have actually achieved that, which has also been the vision: that our Demography unit should be so self-propelled that if I leave the country or decide to do something else, everything should not just collapse like a house of cards", said Gunnar Andersson.

Those who work with and meet Gunnar Andersson know him as an outgoing person who radiates a lot of energy.

How does your personality rime with the research profession, with its long processes? I mean, it can take years from idea to publication?

"You don’t just sit around and think the same thought for several years as a researcher. It is a lot of work and it is very intense, like when we work with survey data from several different countries and large-scale register data. There are numbers spinning in real time on the computer screen. And with register data, new things are constantly being discovered from these large amounts of information", said Gunnar Andersson.

Text: Leila Zoubir