Finland’s population is ageing rapidly. While the share of individuals aged 65 years and older was still 15 percent in 2000, it increased to 22 percent in 2019. Researchers expect it to further increase to 28 percent by 2050. This demographic shift is progressing so quickly, that Finland ranks among the five fastest ageing populations worldwide (United Nations 2019).
Finland ranks among the five fastest ageing populations worldwide.
Even though the root causes of the rapid demographic change lie in the past, its effects are clearly visible today. The rapid change happened because Finland experienced a very short baby boom right after the Lapland War. The baby boomers just retired, thereby dramatically increasing the share of older people in Finnish society. The effects of their retirement are clearly visible, because the baby boom made such a big difference in the number of births from one year to the next. As a result, when the boomers retired, also the number of retirees drastically increased from one year to the next (Komp-Leukkunen 2018). There was no time to slowly prepare for this change. There was no chance to calmly observe it happen and get used to it. The change happened quickly, and immediate reactions were necessary. Some people were surely surprised by this development. Others were not surprised, but nevertheless needed to speedily observe and react. The short reaction time differentiates the Finnish situation from that of most other countries, where population ageing progresses more slowly and people have more time to prepare (United Nations 2019).
Societies are changing in two ways when populations age. First, some extant arrangements are recalibrated. For example, pension insurance need to be recalibrated, because there are more beneficiaries and those beneficiaries live for a longer time. Because of these changes, the calculations done for balancing pension contributions and benefits no longer pan out. They have to be redone.
Some means for bringing them back into balance are delaying retirement, lowering pension benefits, and increasing pension contributions. Similar situations occur with the number of hospital beds and long-term care places (Komp & Béland 2012). All these arrangements have in common that their structure remains intact, only the numbers are adjusted. The adjustments can be done in a comparatively short time frame: redoing the calculations is quick, only implementing the calculation results may require a transition period. Consequently, such recalibrations are manageable in the Finnish situation, where quick reactions are needed.
Today’s older people differ considerably from previous generations of older people.
Second, other arrangements are (re)invented. Today’s older people differ considerably from previous generations of older people. They are healthier and more active, possessing different attitudes, preferences, and habits. Researchers argue that the difference is so big that today’s older people even create a new social role. It is a role of activity and social participation in old age (Komp & Béland 2012). Because the number of older individuals in this role increases, various aspects of society will change, such as family dynamics, the products and services offered to older people, relevant topics in election campaigns, and the requirements for public transport. These social changes will occur gradually and slowly, because they emerge from our everyday experiences and from the creative solutions we find to everyday challenges. This is where the crux lies.
Finland combines fast population ageing with slow social change, leaving society out of tune with its members’ lives.
Finland combines fast population ageing with slow social change, leaving society out of tune with its members’ lives. The mere situation that first lives change and then society adapts is common. However, the mismatch is particularly strong in Finland, because population ageing happens exceptionally fast. Therefore, the foremost consequence of population ageing during the next years will not be social change. It will be exactly this mismatch. Older people will feel like their situation and opportunities do not match. Younger people will feel like older people do not behave as expected. Misunderstandings, confusion and dissatisfaction will result. Society will catch up eventually, but that will take time. It is therefore essential that during the next years, we keep an open mind and listen to what others say – especially when we are talking to someone of a different generation. Moreover, we need to allow our society to change, creating room for new ideas and experiments. This way, Finnish society can transition more smoothly into a fit for the ageing population.
Kathrin Komp-Leukkunen, Associate professor
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki
Komp K, Béland D (2012) Balancing protection and productivity: International perspectives on social policies for older people. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21(S1), S1-S7
Komp-Leukkunen K (2018) Working-age life-courses in Finland: A comparison of the cohorts born 1945–51 and 1961–67. Research on Finnish Society, 11, 8-23
United Nations (2019) World population prospects 2019. Retrieved from https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/