A small road between fields

Oral history describes the resources and strength provided by rural heritage

In the 1940s, Finnish children were born in a land of forests and fields. More than half of the working-age population earned their living from agriculture and forestry. Of the entire population, 75 per cent lived in areas categorised as rural. By European standards, the Finnish society was urbanised late but at a rapid pace.

Today, our countryside is different. A quick news recap reveals the problems: villages are being deserted. The population is ageing. For a long time, net migration has been consistently negative especially in sparsely populated rural areas, but also in the so-called rural heartland areas. Young people and women in particular are moving to cities. According to the Finnish Environment Institute, there are close to 140 men to every hundred women in sparsely populated rural areas. 

Services are being centralised and the school network continues to thin out. According to the Finnish National Agency for Education, 40 per cent of Finnish comprehensive schools have disappeared in the 21st century. The shutdowns have affected especially village schools in rural areas. Then again, when considered from a wider European perspective, Finland still is regionally a very sparsely populated, predominantly rural country.

Research is also needed on the everyday life, experiences and expectations of people living in different rural areas.

Statistics provide an important perspective on the rural transformation. However, qualitative research is also needed to explore the comprehensive impacts of the changes. Research is also needed on the everyday life, experiences and expectations of people living in different rural areas.
 
For example, from the perspective of children and young people, the acute issue of centralisation of education is complex: the centralisation of comprehensive schools in municipal centres significantly increases the length of school days for children living in villages. On the other hand, pupils can find more friends in a larger school, and the school can also offer more choices to the pupils. 

Initiated in the fall of 2019 and funded by the Academy of Finland, the research project Rural Generations on the Move. Cultural History of Rural Youth 1950–2020, studies the shift of cultural meanings related to the Finnish rural environment with the help of oral history sources and interview data. We look at the rural environment from the perspective of three generations of young people: baby-boomers born at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, middle-aged people born in the 1970s, and contemporary youth born in early 21st century. 

What cultural meanings are associated with the rural setting as a childhood and youth growing environment in the different stages of life: during adolescence, here and now, or in retrospect after several decades?

In their lives, their home municipality is not just a remote area characterised by net emigration; instead, it is the centre of their entire life.

In fact, the interviews with young people reveal a different spectrum of meanings than the news headlines. In their lives, their home municipality is not just a remote area characterised by net emigration; instead, it is the centre of their entire life. 

Although issues such as long distances and lack of recreational activities are commonplace, recent studies indicate that young people are quite satisfied with their lives. Many want to live in rural municipalities also in the future. Their satisfaction is crystallised in three factors: nature, privacy and freedom to be themselves. A 16-year-old girl sums up the positive aspects of her home municipality into two things:

There is peace and quiet here, there is no buzzing city life --- it is safe and peaceful to live here and all the important people are close, and you can do everything you need to right here. This place is just right.

It is precisely this age – the transition phase from comprehensive school to upper secondary school – that is particularly critical for young people living in rural areas. Compared to urban adolescents of the same age, rural 15–16-year-olds have to make far-reaching choices: will I pursue an education by moving to a new place perhaps hundreds of kilometres away, where an interesting vocational programme may be available, or stay in my home municipality? When rural youth finish comprehensive school, only few of them have moving to Helsinki as their primary goal. Instead, many hope to find a place in an education programme near their home municipality, in the same region.

Many hope to find a place in an education programme near their home municipality, in the same region.

The life path of young people is shaped by a complex network. Their future is characterised by inconsistencies and multiple locations: even though young people may be attached to their home municipality, they are simultaneously preparing to leave. Staying is not possible for everyone.

In an international youth study, this paradox, the requirement to leave, is referred to as the 'mobility imperative’ (Farrugia 2016). In our project, we examine the meanings that rural youth associate with their home region and the factors affecting their life choices. In particular, we explore how the past is present in future choices, such as in cross-generational ties and the tradition of leaving the rural environment.

At the time, the future plans of the oldest generation included in the study were often motivated by the desire to get away from hard physical labour and poor living conditions. It is estimated that one out of two baby-boomers born after the Second World War moved to cities.

Oral history sources reveal how a rural childhood was transferred with immigrants to cities, where their roots were then seen, for example, in the ultimately Finnish summer cottage culture. However, when the experiences of work and poverty are recounted and interpreted after several decades, they can be seen in a new light – as a resource. 

Here is how a man from northern Finland, born in 1945, concludes his life story on his rural youth, which has predominantly been a story of forced choices and surviving in poor conditions:

In my head, I often go back (--) to my youth. (---) I drive in my car along the familiar road leading up to our house. When I get there, all I see is a well-kept birch forest at the end of the road. The run-down buildings of the courtyard are all gone. All that is left is a rotten playhouse and the stone wall of the cottage with remnants of a fireplace. Even in the darkest times, it used to spread light and warmth into our home. I wonder if all the work we did here was completely wasted? Not at all! It is here we gained the strength for our own lives.

History does not teach us anything directly, and it cannot be used to find answers to the challenges of today. Instead, understanding the past helps us to perceive the present and orientate ourselves towards the future. People change slowly. We carry with us our past and the history of our family and region, and it affects the choices we make today in countless different ways. However, the past does not have to be a burden or an obstacle; it can also be a resource.

Understanding the past helps us to perceive the present and orientate ourselves towards the future.

Author:
Kaisa Vehkalahti
Academy Research Fellow in history at the University of Oulu
 

One of the sources (two others in Finnish):
Farrugia, David 2016: The mobility imperative for rural youth: the structural, symbolic and non-representational dimensions rural youth mobilities. Journal of Youth Studies, 19:6, 836–851.

Researcher profile of Kaisa Vehkalahti

Research project Rural Generations on the Move. Cultural History of Rural Youth 1950–2020

 

Last updated: 25.3.2020