Today over lunch at work we had a heated discussion on diversity. It was pointed out that very often people make assumptions on your background purely based on your nationality or looks and it seems to be widely shared notion that we all have a middle class background. Also I have heard several times the comment:"Oh you would not understand, you come from Finland." This usually refers to me not understanding hardships or conflicts or social struggle. These are often people who have never been to Finland and who easily mix Finland with for instance Sweden which has not had a war in centuries. A colleague of mine mentioned wisely today:"I mean we spend eight hours together every day and you know nothing about my family but you make a lot of assumptions."
Last weekend I read with great pleasure my friend Laura Kolbe's book on social classes in Finland. The goal of Professor of European History Kolbe and Cultural Anthropologist Katriina Järvinen was to break the silence on socio-economic backgrounds in Finland and shed light on the fact that we all do not belong to the middle class and that social mobility works both ways. The book is based on interviews and addresses issues of shame, humiliation and joy in a fresh and rare manner. Kolbe and Järvinen encourage us all to talk openly about class.
They pick on a highly important issue. Finland is not a flat society where everyone has the same chances. Although the social mobility in general has been rapidly upwards over the last few decades, only between 2003-2007 more than 100.000 new people were classified as poor in Finland. Finland had last year 650.000 people earning less than 750 euros per month (from a population of 5 million). Accidentally, in the project that I run, the researchers of Demos were last week in Finland interviewing young people and it was heartwarming to hear from them that the Finnish teenagers are concerned about the growing difference between the haves and the have nots.
To join Kolbe's and Järvinen's movement, I could say that I have belonged to the middle class all my life, maybe even upper middle class. My parents are part of the generation that experienced the fast urbanisation of Finland and who still believe passionately on the empowering role of education. We were never swimming in money but we never lacked a single thing. The economic recession of Finland in the 90s did not influence me in the same way as it did my friends from Eastern or Northern Finland. I remember one of my best friends telling how she saw it all through her mother working as a social worker and her father running his own company.
I am part of the generation Kolbe describes as the generation from the suburbs with detachment to the nation state and not a strong sense of community to the physical surroundings. Me and my friends belong to subscenes in Finland which can also be found from other European countries. My relationship with the countryside could well be described as awkward.
But I am conscious of my background. My mother comes from a big family which experienced the high price Finland paid after the Second World War. My grandmother had to abandon her home within a few hours and they were settled to a new part of Finland. On my father's side our family brings together Swedish-speaking bourgeois and Finnish-speaking working class. My uncle was a worker's son who was exceptionally allowed to play on the tennis court of the better people. Even our last name is part of the story of a birth of a nation: Lindstedt was changed into Laitio as part of the patriotic dream of an independent Finland.
I am grateful for the opportunities Finland has given me but I don't think it is all of my own doing. In my work I see constantly that we do not start from an even playing field. Class still matters in the same way as gender or ethnicity. Only for raising your own class consciousness, I recommend reading the book.
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