Friday, 18 May 2012

The Class Divide in Finland

The Finnish society has been largely middle class since the last world war. As such the gap between rich and poor is a narrow one, unlike many other countries. The homogenous make up of the Finnish society in terms of religion (82.5% are Lutheran), language (there is a very small Swedish speaking minority), race, culture and ethnicity (93.4% are ethnic Finns) means there isn’t much basis for divisions. Also unlike most European countries which had a system of governance based on a king and aristocracy the Finnish people did not have such a class structure. The Swedish ruling class did (Sweden ruled Finland from the 12th to 19th century) but the Finns were all united in their peasantry. The development of the Nordic welfare model and uniform education are other factors which helped to integrate the working class into the rest of the nation by improving their standard of living. In the Caribbean in addition to the amount of money a person has, we also have the added mix of race making it more complicated as to who are “the haves and have nots”. Finns are so much into equality and making sure the government takes care of everyone that on the surface it seems as though there is no rich and poor or class divide. As a result the class divide in Finland is not very obvious. There are no ghettos like in the US. There is no obvious accent or way of speaking if you are working class versus middle or upper class as there is in Trinidad or UK. So trying to spot who is who is not apparent or easy on the surface.

Be that as it may I recently realized that there is class division in Finland. In my ten years here in Finland I had not really noticed it. Since having Emilia I have been mostly passing my days at the nearest Perhetalo. A Perhetalo or leikkipuisto is a place where children and their guardians can go to pass the time. The guardians (usually mothers at home alone with children) can get adult company and the children can play together. They often organize information sessions on childcare and activities for the children.  They are run by the city’s social welfare department. In spending time there I have gotten to know the women and over time we have exchanged some information about our lives. I realized that most of the mothers are what you would call “working class” and I guess Robert and I are “middle class”.

All of us are stay-at-home moms receiving parental allowance from the state. But where we differ in education levels and our husbands’ professions. While Robert and I are university educated most of the others are not and their husbands have non-skilled jobs. One lady spoke of living in city housing (which is by no means as dangerous or bad as the state housing in US or Trinidad) but still houses unsavory types. For instance she spoke of men who pass out in the hall drunk or families who disturb the peace by fighting loudly while their children are crying. She would like to move to a better housing unit but the bureaucracy makes it a difficult and lengthy process.

So the main difference between the classes here is in education levels and therefore income. It was then that I realized why I had not met anyone else from my immediate neighbourhood at the local perhetalo. The perhetalo is a fifteen minute walk from my house but it is in the area of Kontula. Kontula has a reputation for being a low income, run-down area. The type of place Finnish people consider “ghetto” but in reality is a far cry from what a ghetto is. So naturally the people who go to the perhetalo are from the nearby area of Kontula. In my area of single family homes with their back yards and two cars people probably at best feel like they have nothing in common with the working class patrons of the local perhetalo or at worst feel like they are better than these people. In my world of university graduates and professionals if I had never started going to the nearby perhetalo I would not have come into contact with many working class people. The women there have been very friendly and welcoming to me. Recently I was even invited by one of them to her home for a Vappu (May Day) party. Coming from a working class background myself I can understand and identify with them to a certain extent. But at the same time I feel somewhat removed from their reality. I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars I don’t have to live in city housing and be afraid of some junky touching my child’s face when I get into the elevator. I don’t have to worry that the only money I will get this month is my parental allowance check.  

I can’t help but remember what one PhD student I worked for in a lab in the University of Helsinki said to me about his army experience. A one year stint in the army or civil service work is mandatory for all Finnish males. He said that in the army you meet a cross section of the Finnish population. Being in the army had been a good learning experience for him because there he met working class people and realized they were normal people just like himself! I was flabbergasted by that statement especially since it was made by a Finnish person in this land of equality.

But it just goes to show you that even in Scandinavia, where there is probably one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor and where equality and being treated equally and fairly is very important, there is still some class divide.

Here are some facts on Finland, its society and its economy
Here is some info on the history of the Finnish class system.