30 January 2007

Behind the facade of Finland's success story

By Tapani Lausti

The much-praised competitiveness of Finland's economy has been in the world news for some time. So have the achievements of the Finnish educational system. Yet the image of a successful and happy nation with a bright future has been challenged lately by several Finnish writers.

First there was Professor Juha Siltala's book about wage earners' ever worsening working conditions, Työelämän huonontumisen lyhyt historia ("A short history of the deterioration of working life"). And more recently, two ex-futurologists of the world-famous Nokia company came out with a book which analyses the inability of current economic and social thinking to understand where the world is heading. Kaisa Kautto-Koivula and Marita Huhtaniemi have seen the future from inside the Finnish success story and they have come to the conclusion that the future is not working.

In their book Rengistä Isännäksi: Vapaaksi kvartaalitalouden talutusnuorasta (freely translated: "Free from the leash of the short-term economy"), Kautto-Koivula and Huhtaniemi, who for fifteen years helped Nokia to think about the future, observe how the overwhelming need for short-term profits has distanced the corporate world more and more from real human needs. Companies have begun to operate even against their own long-term interests in their obsession of cutting costs. Whilst capital owners' greed knows no limits, wage earners are being pushed to the outer limits of their mental and physical endurance without any clearly defined ideas of a better society. More and more workers are feeling inadequate and insecure if not worse. The writers themselves left Nokia after realising that they had begun to burn themselves out.

Kautto-Koivula and Huhtaniemi think that the world has come to a crossroads. The traditional thinking of the industrial age can no longer explain new economic, social and human tensions and conflicts. The authors write about the need for a new paradigm upon which it will be possible to create new institutions which are more relevant to current problems of industrial leadership and production. They believe that new principles according to which it is possible to organise productive life can be found in the immaterial resource of creativity, intuition and knowhow. They emphasise the need for new ideologies and organising principles to support active citizenship and a new kind of democracy. The authors believe that human kind has lost its way for a long period of time. Now is the time to put human beings and nature in the centre of things, where they belong.

Kautto-Koivula and Huhtaniemi's attitude towards the world economy seems ambivalent. They condemn harmful and aimless economic growth but at the same time want a more efficient strategy for Finland to address the demands of today's global economy. This would seem to be just another way of remaining slaves of the current economic system.

Perhaps unrealistically, the writers also want Finland to show the way to a new kind of social and economic system. Be that as may, the book does offer interesting material about how the future of the country is being debated both in academia and the corporate world, not forgetting the debates going on in offices, factories and other work places. Something may well be brewing even if the orthodoxies of economic and social thinking still have a strong hold on people's minds. On the promising side, the Finns don't take lightly attacks against the traditional Nordic welfare state.

The fact that Juha Siltala's book on Finnish working life became a best-seller shows that the reading public is ready for the kind of debate which Kautto-Koivula and Huhtaniemi also want to encourage.

Visit the archive: Society and social thinking (The review of Kautto-Koivula and Huhtaniemi's book in Finnish)


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