Finland is a society where few have too much and even fewer have too little. One thing that particularly strikes visitors to Finland is the apparent absence of class distinctions in education, in everyday social life and in the protocols of public life. It has been said that without the existence of an overseas empire, or a native monarchy and aristocracy, there has been no opportunity for racial, social or class superiority to take root.
Being virtually classless has really prevailed since the 1980s. As Finland has turned into a knowledge society, few people work in the classical sense of labouring—most of them work with their heads. Industry concerns itself with controlling automated machines, and labour jobs have been transferred to China or Estonia.
The relative absence of invisible social barriers in their own society has led the Finns to be very well liked and accepted in many parts of the globe. The Finns have been very successful missionaries in Africa because they were seen to be of European stock, but without the taint of white supremacy and colonial attitude. No one resents the Finns when they arrive abroad. There are many foreign aid programmes and development programmes supported by Finland, especially in East Africa. The roads in Tanzania were built with Finnish support. The Finnish are particularly well accepted in their UN peace-keeping roles and many political summits are held in Helsinki as Finland is seen as a country with “no axe to grind” and no historical alliances.
One Finnish told: “We have no social class. It is very impolite to admit or think in terms of social classes”. Of course, Finnish society is not without snobbery, but it is said that it harks back to the days of Swedish nobility and German barons. Some say there exists elitism in some of the minority of Swede-Finns. Some speak little or no Finnish, by speaking Swedish at home and by attending Swedish-speaking schools and universities. Although they have a Finnish passport, they see themselves as superior and refuse to integrate in Finnish society or speak Finnish. Also, they have no wish for their children to be bilingual. The majority of Finns do not witness this, though an English friend of mine who works in Helsinki knows a small “clique” who keep themselves very separate.
One American lady who had worked for a Finnish company in the States for over 20 years spoke about the Finnish “old guard” as being very arrogant and superior. Nowadays, she explained, the Finns are quite changed and really very hospitable.
An Englishman which the is married to a Finn and has been living in Finland for ten years, told me that when he first came to Finland, he was treated as a second-class citizen. ‘things changed,” he said, “when they joined the EU”. He added that before Finland joined the EU, there were many who suffered paranoia that the rest of Europe would come and take away their lands and everything they had worked hard to build up. This, of course, could give rise to resentment of refugees arriving. However, the Finns have given homes to Vietnamese boat people and Kurds, who integrated well into their society because they learned the language, became better educated and worked hard—all of which the Finns admired. In record time, they turned themselves into entrepreneurs because their livelihood depended on it.
There is a new hierarchy of wealth. The “Nouveau-riche” is a new phenomenon in Finland. These are people who have earned money quickly, usually through share options in some of the companies that have become large and successful, such as Nokia. Increasing wealth is being generated by the IT companies who lead the world in leading-edge technologies. Some of these people like to show off their wealth. They buy expensive things because they can afford to do so. This is typically un-Finnish, whose culture values modesty, humility and keeping a low profile. Until recently, all Finns believed that if you had something you didn’t show it off, because it wasn’t good to do so.
In a recent survey, it was shown that people who won the lottery, tended to keep quiet about it. All they did was change their car for a slightly better one. They repaired their houses and they travelled a little more—but nothing that was ostentatious. Another survey of 50 countries shows that the Finnish and New Zealand males are the least susceptible to flattery. Humility, modesty and shyness are valued characteristics.
Although the Finns have built for themselves a sort of classless society, it would be unfair to say that there are no prejudices at all. Indeed, people in the north and rural areas feel that those who live in the big city of Helsinki look down on them. It has only been in very recent years that the Sami people and their culture have begun to emerge from under Finnish ‘suppression». These hardworking people from Lapland, who endure the most extremes of weather that this earth can give, have long been regarded as a slightly inferior race. Also, there is a small population of gypsies who live in Finland. These Romany people number about 6,000. They have their own language, culture and dress. These people have long been despised (unusually for the tolerant Finns) probably because they do not try to integrate into mainstream society.
The Finns and Foreigners
Back in 1990, there were only 9,000 foreigners in the whole of Finland, which included 1,000 refugees. However, nowadays there are reckoned to be over 200,000 foreigners in the country. Think of the shock to a nation that has had few visitors from the outside world.
Roman Schatz: When Finns encounter a foreigner, ‘their heart rate rises and sweat appears on their brows!» (From Finland With Love, 2006)
Their passion for equality means they have built for themselves a sort of classless society where living standards are high and with relatively little difference between high and low salaries. High levels of taxation gives Finland one of the most comprehensive welfare systems in western Europe, and all this has been achieved by gradual consensus over a long period of time. Employment law is quite rigid and very much favours workers» rights. The owner of a small engineering company explained that his workers were only allowed to work 40 hours a week and 300 hours overtime in any year and have six weeks holiday, plus all the bank holidays. Thus, to get the work done, he and the family had to work all hours! It is extremely difficult to un-employ someone when they have started working for you.
Interestingly, the law in Finland requires all major employers to provide a «Nuclear» Bunker, stocked with provisions, water and blankets at their premises for the protection of their workforce in case of an emergency.