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.


  1. Danielle, interesting post, i think one difference in the finnish class divide vs. e.g. UK is the fact that despite the fact in the end there are differences - more than we would like to see in terms of social security - i would argue that there is larger uniformity still due to similar educational backgroud: we all come from the same school system which has so far been quite equal to all. -Tommi

    1. Yes Tommi you are correct and I agree with you. The Finnish people have very few differences even with regards to education as it is quite uniformly good (unlike many nations such as USA, UK or Trinidad which is based on the broken British model).

      I alluded to this in the first paragraph when I said: "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." But I did not emphasise it.

      But even though everyone has access to the same education not everyone values or decides to pursue a higher education. So the major class difference in Finland becomes the level of education you receive and therefore how much money you make because of that level of education.

  2. I agree, but i have to say, you now talking about the really low percentile. which is more like the non-working class + poor not (yet) well integrated immigrants. The differences in income are not that great or well correlated with degree of education here.

    The traditional working class of blue-collar workers are well organized thanks to the unions; and thanks to the fairly progressive taxation, there is not much difference how much money you make whether you have a Masters degree or a vocational training. or Ph.D for that matter. MD helps a lot of course.

    Its if you are in a manager/excecutive position that makes the difference. Or at least used ot be. And the problem is the family background appears to get inherited when there is no encouragement form home to push forwards, which is universal.

    I guess my point is: as long as you remain in the working class proper, you actually basicly already part of the so called (lower) middle class in this country (and having a Ph.D. doesnt get you out of it, in my experience...). Otherwise i agree with your observations.

    As a furhter anecdote about the working class in Finland - its most of us (well, majority) as in the 1950s this was still a very rural country and poor, with quite a small (and not particularly wealthy) middle class. its our parents that made the first steps up the ladder educationally and the country developed in giant leaps after the war. And then 1970-1980s were the years that "destroyed" the class society before it even began, with the implementation of the Nordic welfare state. there was no large middle class and proper class divide before that (or after that). well, there is/was huge divide marked by the civil war of 1918 but that's a different story. But it maybe another divide now lies ahead, i fear.

    One may disagree about what was the history of Finnish middle class probably, and i am not a historian, but this to me seems the rough picture of it. I am a child of the results of the urbanization of this country and speak from that perspective...

  3. Good to hear your input and historical take on the Finnish class system and how it has developed or not developed since you are a Finn you know better than me.

    Yes I agree there is very little class difference in Finland because of all you just outlined. As I said it is so little I did not notice it before. But there is still some. Is it 1%? I don't know maybe. But it is growing. See:

    And since I started going to the perhetalo in Kontula I have noticed some class difference. The people there are not all jobless and most of them are not immigrants. Mostly they are Finnish mothers at home with the children while their husbands work in jobs such as in a warehouse or moving company etc. You don't make much money with that.

    A single family house used to be affordable to teachers, firemen and nurses but now with rising house prices in Helsinki you need to be one of those managers/ executives to afford them. I don't think you can make much more than 2000 a month if you don't have some kind of degree or skill. And you must agree that after 40% tax of even 5000 - 7000 euros a month there is still quite a large difference than if you were making 2000 or less.

    And no, you are right, a PhD degree does not guarantee you a better salary than many non degree but skilled occupations. (That's one reason I am not motivated to pursue one). You have to have a degree in the right field like a doctor, lawyer or in business to start with a higher than average salary.

  4. As a Finn I think the best way to have money to buy own home is to have a college degree to be a plumber or an electrician! Because you graduate young (19y) and start earning money! plumbers are paid really well... better than nurses and teachers. (Registered nurse earns 2200€/m) So in Finland you can have a very good salary without any education (garbage driver) or with a short education. Academic degree doesn't guarantee a good salary... And about people living in the city housing. I have over 30 years of experience. My mom (working class) was a single mother and now I'm a single mother myself. I have lived in four different places and I have never felt insecure. I think that the bad reputation of the city housing is seriously exaggerated. My neighbors are nice people with small salaries - academic and non-academic, police, registered nurses, reseachers, PhDs, clerks, cleaners, unemployed, immigrants, pensioners, alcoholics... and a lot of single mothers! I think I have become more open-minded when living among the "lower class" ;)

    1. Yes it is true you don't need a Masters or PhD in Finland to own a good salary and to be able to buy a house and that skilled workers are earning sometimes more than you and me. But I was just using my experiences here which is what a blog is all about. And my experience includes mostly people of higher education and the new families on my street mostly have a higher education while the ones who built the houses in the 80's don't all have a Master degree but some skill. But even so that was my point. You need some kind of education OR skill to get a decent salary. The people I was talking about do UNskilled jobs. When you have a wife and children on that kind of salary you can't afford to buy a house.

      The woman who I met who lives in city housing says that not all the city housing buildings are as bad as the one she lives in. She says that the city seems to like to put certain types of people in certain buildings and families in other buildings. I guess she was unlucky and was placed in one of the buildings where they mostly put drunks and drug users. I don't know. She wants to move to a building in Vuosaari which she says is a better housing unit. So I guess not all city housing is run down and full of unsavoury types but some are.

      I don't know anything about Helsinki City housing and how bad or good it is. I just know my experiences with people at the perhetalo in Kontula. And that's what a blog is about your own experiences. Thanks for sharing your experiences of city housing it is good to know that city housing's rep is exaggerated.

      Many people's impressions of east Helsinki are also wrong. I have had many people who visit my home in east Helsinki for the first time and remark that they never knew there were nice quiet neighbourhoods and pretty houses in east Helsinki. They thought it was all run down public housing like they see in the Finnish movie shots of places just outside the metro stations of Kontula and Mellunmäki.

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  6. Wow! This model really amazes me. No system is perfect but the northern Europeans tend to organize things in a way that seems to benefit most of their citizens as opposed to small, powerful groups huh? My limited experience with Finns has been among the young working class. And they all have a good standard of living and can afford to travel abroad and that kind of thing. Plus they have this social safety net that I have never had. I was very struck by this. I thought about folks back home (T&T) who had similar working class jobs and the dramatically different lives they lead.

    1. Yes Shiv the class divide is very small and almost imperceptible. Most working class people enjoy a middle class life style that we working class Trinis could never afford. They get higher salaries here than you could get in most countries with the same skill. But a small number of working class people who do unskilled jobs, and as Tommi pointed out, the jobless people are the ones who make the class divide possible. And unskilled workers are scarce since all levels of education and trade schools are free and so easily accessible to all.

      Economic sociologist Pekka Räsänen from Turkku University says that Finland has always been a class society and that it is growing. Although mostly among the elderly but hes says other groups have been affected also. Hopefully it will not widen too much.

      Yes all of Scandinavia is pretty similar in this system of good social safety net and high taxation making almost everyone middle class. At least Sweden and Finland and quite similar, Denmark seems to lean a bit more on the capitalist side and Norway has all that oil money. Of course there are some rich people in Finland but they are also a small group and if they get rich off of income as opposed to stocks then after heavy taxation they don't really take home an extremely large amount of money. As Tommi also pointed out.

      But yes this is one of the things I love about Finland. I believe this small class division is why there is so little crime in Finland. You will see that in countries were there is very little poverty there is usually very little crime. This is something we in Trinidad should take note of. But then the reason why this system works so well in Finland is because of the near homogeneous population as I mentioned at the beginning of the blog. In Trinidad we have too many different races, ethnic groups and religions. And they all have different agendas and all want to be on top and fight down the others. So offering everyone the same education and social services would not be supported.

  7. Hi Danielle ...
    Found your blog.. I was in Helsinki three weeks ago ... would have been nice to link up.
    Anyway I'll stalk your blog from now on, you can always hit me up at