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Finland’s vanishing rural population

A house in Lapland A house in Lapland Matyas Arvai
26 Jun
Finland is one of the OECD’s most rural countries, but the rural population is ageing fast and one-by-one the country’s villages are shrinking away

If you live in rural Finland the nearest shop might be a 60-mile drive away. If you live in the far north it might be even further.

Finland’s 5.5 million people are spread out over a large geographical area. A drive from Helsinki to Lapland takes around 16 hours.

This means that the familiar challenges for advanced economies with ageing populations are even more acute in rural Finland. Younger people leave villages to find work in the cities while an older population is left to manage alone.

And without migration from urban areas, the villages risk eventual extinction.

This ‘agequake’ or ‘grey tsunami’ is a problem across the Scandinavian countries, according to the Nordic Centre for Spatial Development. But it is particularly difficult for Finland where 18 per cent of the population is aged 65 years or over, the highest proportion in Scandinavia. The elderly are concentrated in rural areas, with most found in the north and the east of the country.

Problems associated with ageing are expected to grow more severe, with pressure on the pension system becoming very stretched by 2060, according to an OECD report into ageing in Finland. The report suggests increased migration and a higher retirement age to accommodate the demographic shift.

The country’s government recently announced a range of financial incentives to encourage people to move to more rural areas, but there are also initiatives from business and civil society to preserve rural Finland.

Old age dependency ratioOld-age dependency ratio (Image: Nordregio)

Päivi Tahkokallio was born in a small village in south-west Finland. She left to work, marry and raise her children in Helsinki. But after 35 years her husband was invited to work in the Arctic Circle. Tahkokallio and her family moved to Rovaniemi, a city with 60,000 residents that accounts for a third of Lapland’s population.

‘As you can imagine, the city is growing, slowly but steadily, and the growth comes mostly from people moving from rural areas within Lapland,’ says Tahkokallio. ‘From the national point of view, Rovaniemi is seen as a modest, regional growth centre.’

She also has a home in the small village of Partakko. ‘[The] majority of permanent residents in Partakko village are retired, and the trend is that old enough people sooner or later move either to Ivalo, the administrative centre of the municipality, or to Rovaniemi. What is noteworthy though is that they hardly ever sell their houses in Partakko, but come visit as often as they can, staying for weeks and months when the weather is not too cold,’ she says.

Tahkokallio launched Arctic Design Week five years ago when she noticed that changes in politics, the environment and economics were bringing the Arctic to international attention. Projects associated with the week try to engage people from across the population.

‘A recent example of this was the design contest last February that Arctic Design Week 2015 and [electricity utility company] Kemijoki Oy organised to find prerequisites for quality of life in the Arctic villages of Finnish Lapland. The contestants cooperated with village residents to design services that support the quality of life of ageing residents in particular. The goal of the contest was to develop the village communities of the Kemijoki riverside together with the local residents,’ says Tahkokallio.

‘Some parts of Lapland are actually like an early laboratory of ageing in Finland’, she adds.

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