Society

Society

FINLAND HAS BEEN on Europe's periphery, both physically and socially, for almost all its history. It is still Europe's northernmost country, with a quarter of its area above the Arctic Circle. By the late 1980s, however, modern means of communication had substantially reduced its physical remoteness from the rest of Europe. Modern technology also had lessened winter's hold on the country. Finns lived comfortably, and they moved about freely the whole year. In the social realm, Finland had left its traditional poverty and backwardness behind. Since World War II, it had become one of the world's most advanced societies. Its citizens enjoyed prosperity and meaningful employment, as well as benefits from the social measures they had forged, which guaranteed everyone a decent and humane share of the prosperity.

During the course of their history, Finns have always moved about, both within their country and abroad. The years after World War II saw, however, an unprecedented population shift away from the countryside to the increasingly more urbanized south. New industries and a rapidly growing service sector meant that the work force not only relocated, but also changed in character. Agriculture's and forestry's combined share of the work force declined from about 50 percent in 1950 to about 10 percent in 1980. Industry's share remained unchanged at about 20 percent, while that of the service sector doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent. Between 1950 and 1980, the number of students and pensioners quadrupled, going from 6 to 24 percent, reflecting a wealthier and healthier society.

Personal relationships also changed. Families became smaller; divorce became more common. A growing public sector meant that many tasks previously managed by the family could now be entrusted to the state. Lessened dependence on the family also meant greater freedom for women. This was reflected in new legislation that gave women greater equality with men. Traditional habits persisted, however, and in the late 1980s Finland's women still had a secondary place at home, in the workplace, and in politics.

Finland was a remarkably homogeneous country. It had no racial minorities. The largest minority group, the Swedishspeaking Finns, was so well assimilated with the majority that there were fears it would eventually disappear. In fact, the group's share of the country's population had dropped from 12 percent to 6 percent in the twentieth century. Two very small minorities, the Lapps (or Sami) and the Gypsies, remained apart from the majority. They still suffered from some discrimination and from poor living standards, but legislation and more open attitudes on the part of the majority were improving their lot.

Finland was virtually free of the religious divisions that bedeviled many other societies. One of the two state churches, the Lutheran Church of Finland, had nearly 90 percent of the population as members. Religious freedom was guaranteed by law, and Finns also belonged to several dozen other churches. Because Finnish society had become increasingly secularized, differences of opinion about moral issues caused less friction than they had in the past.

Finns maintained their traditional respect for education. Education had gradually become more accessible, and an ever greater number of Finns were studying at all levels. The old system, which excluded many, had been replaced by one that attempted to meet individual schooling needs and to keep open as many options for further training as possible; no one went without education for lack of money.

Finland, like its Nordic neighbors, had created a system of public welfare measures that was among the most advanced in the world. Through a steady progression of legislation, Finns came to be protected from many of life's vicissitudes. Coverage was virtually universal, and it was seen as a right rather than as charity. Income security measures guaranteed Finns a livelihood despite age, illness, or unemployment. The state also provided many services that assisted Finns in their daily life, such as child care, family counseling, and health care. Although some social problems persisted, the quality of life for Finns overall had steadily and, in many instances, dramatically improved. Better medical care meant that Finns enjoyed improved health, while subsidized housing brought them better and roomier shelter. Efforts also were being made to protect the natural environment.

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