Class Structure

Finland Table of Contents

For centuries Finnish society consisted of the nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasants. The nineteenth century saw the eclipse of the nobility and clergy and, with the coming of industrialization, the formation of socially significant entrepreneurial and working classes. The civil war and subsequent periods of repression helped to create hostile relations among labor, land, and capital, and in the interwar period Finland was a country marked by deep social fissures along class and language lines. The common national goals of World War II closed some wounds, but it was not until the coming of consensus politics in the second half of the 1960s that constructive relations among competing social groups became possible. An unprecedented prosperity, widely distributed through incomes agreements and a Nordic-style welfare system, served to integrate all groups into society; a more open education system, coupled with the internationally pervasive consumer culture of the postwar era, planed away many differences of taste and conduct related to class.

Finnish scholars have examined the composition of the new consensus society, and their varied findings have prompted serious discussions of its class makeup. Among many issues debated have been the definition of the working class, the extent to which it has been affected by a process of "embourgeoisement," and the constitution of the ruling elite, if any, that has steered the country. One noted Finnish sociologist, Matti Alestalo, familiar with academic studies in these areas, divided Finnish society of the 1980s into six classes: farmers, working class, petite bourgeoisie, lower middle class, upper middle class, and upper class.

For Alestalo, the two most striking changes in Finland's class structure after World War II were the steep drop in the size of the farming population and the great expansion of the lower middle class. During the early 1950s, the number of those working in agriculture actually increased, but thereafter it fell steadily. By 1980 the sector was about one-quarter of its size thirty years earlier, and it consisted almost entirely of farm owners and their families because the number of hired agricultural workers had dwindled. The farmers who remained enjoyed a higher standard of living because it was the smaller and poorer farms that had been abandoned. Another reason for farmers' new prosperity was that they were a highly organized and homogeneous class that successfully lobbied for government policies that benefited them. Farmers differed from other classes in that they were, to a far higher degree, self-recruiting; about 80 percent of farmers were the offspring of farmers. The rationalization of agriculture made small businessmen out of most farmers, but farmers differed from other owners of small enterprises in that they passed on to their children something that was more a way of life than a business.

Alestalo classified as a worker anyone employed for primarily manual work, and he included in this class some white-collar wage earners whom others judged to belong to the lower middle class. According to his calculations, the working class had accounted for about 50 percent of the economically active work force during the entire postwar period, but the sectors in which it was employed had changed. The share of workers employed in agriculture and forestry had dropped from 22 to 4 percent by 1980, while the share active in manufacturing and services had increased to 60 and to 26 percent, respectively. Workers' living standards had improved greatly--more than those of other groups-- since the war, but even in the 1980s workers still had poorer health and less job security than other classes. They were also housed more poorly, and one of their primary concerns was to acquire homes of their own. By the 1980s, Finnish workers had become much more integrated into society than they had been in the immediate postwar period, but they still identified strongly with their labor unions and with the parties that had traditionally represented them. Although workers no longer lived in the isolated enclaves of the interwar period, Alestalo believed it would be premature to say that they had become part of the middle class.

Finland's petite bourgeoisie of shopowners and small entrepreneurs had never been an economically important class. It had declined slowly in size, beginning in the 1950s, until by 1980 it accounted for only 5 percent of the work force. Many small shops operated by this class had closed because of the growth of large retail firms. Many small grocery stores, for example, had gone out of business. There was little intergenerational stability in this class because many of its members came from outside it.

Alestalo divided the large group engaged in nonmanual, whitecollar occupations into a lower middle class and an upper middle class. Educational level, recruitment criteria, complexity of tasks, level of income, and commitment to the organization were among the factors that determined to which of these two classes a person belonged. Both classes had grown since the war, doubling in size between 1960 and 1980, but the lower middle class share of the total work force in 1980 amounted to 24 percent, making it the second largest class in Finland and dwarfing the 8 percent of the upper middle class. Both levels of the middle class had many members born in other classes, but the lower-middle-class had more, one-third having a farming background and another third coming from the working class. Women dominated in the lower middle class, constituting 60 percent of its membership in 1960 and 70 percent in 1980, an indication of their heavy employment in lower-level service-sector positions such as those of office workers, elementary school teachers, and nurses.

According to Alestalo, the country's upper class accounted for about 1 percent of the economically active population; it was made up of the owners, directors, or managers of large industrial concerns, banks, and commercial institutions in the private sector, as well as the heads of large state companies and agencies, and senior civil servants in the public sector. Some members of the country's upper class inherited their wealth or position. In the postwar era, however, most appeared to be hired professionals. Much of the membership of the upper class came from the upper reaches of Finnish society, but several factors resulted in its having a more heterogeneous composition than earlier--the coming to power of socialist parties with leaderships from a various classes, the common practice of politicizing senior civil service appointments, and the greater importance of state institutions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress