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Finland’s flight from the country
Watch how Finland’s population flowed from rural areas to the cities

One of the key shifts over Finland’s 97 years of independence has been the journeys taken by hundreds of thousands of Finnish families over the last century, from rural existences on small farms in search of a new, better life in towns and cities. See our interactive map to find out how Finland’s population has moved around since 1880.

One million – the number of times moving boxes are packed and emptied again in Finland every year. The vast majority of Finland’s internal migrants make their way to the south of the country. Last year, removal vans brought 80,000 new residents to the Helsinki region.

This is how it’s gone for decades, at least since the end of the Second World War. Rural areas have been losing people as the population makes its way towards the country’s growth centres. Governments have tried, but failed, to halt the flow. The 1950s state regional employment policy, decentralisation efforts in the 1970s and regional regeneration initiatives of the 2000s have not put a stop to the stream of migrants heading for urban areas. And should they have even tried?

”It’s unavoidable. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but it’s a fact that Finland is centralising,” asserts Hjallis Harkimo, one of the country’s best known – and richest – businessmen.

Harkimo also happens to be descended from one of Finland’s best-known industrial dynasties, the Hackman family, who over 200 years ago founded the forerunner to the kitchenware and cutlery manufacturer which has become a staple of Finnish design.

The Hackman family history mirrors the trends of how Finns moved around within the country over the past centuries. The rise and fall of the family’s fortunes closely follows the ebb and flow of Finnish migratory movements. Where Finns moved, the Hackmans moved too.

Hjallis Harkimo is a Helsinki native, and his businesses are based there. But like many others who live in the capital, his roots come from elsewhere in the country.

Hjallis Harkimo and Johan Friedrich Hackman.

In the late 1700s, Hjallis’ maternal great-great-great-great grandfather Johan Friedrich Hackman founded a trading house in Vyborg, which grew rapidly. Since then the Hackmans have been involved in setting up some of Finland’s most iconic businesses, including a mine in Outokumpu, a sugar factory in Töölö and a number of sawmills across the country.

”They founded a lot. You couldn’t do that much nowadays. It makes one’s own achievements feel rather small and modest,” Harkimo says.

Nowadays the Hackman workforce has dwindled, and the cutlery business is all that remains – though that too is now owned by the scissor manufacturer Fiskars.

”There’s no place in the world for the old industrial dynasties any more. The competition has got tougher,” Harkimo says.

But it wasn’t always like that. Over 200 years ago, the industrial family was still at the height of its powers and Finland’s largest city was home to no more than tens of thousands of people.

On the third of October 1777, Johan Friedrich Hackman arrives in Vyborg from Lübeck, in Germany. He’s made his way there in the footsteps of Christian Wilhelm Alopaeus, a Vyborg gentleman whom Johan Friedrich met in Lübeck.

The influence of German families in Vyborg of the late 1700s is very strong, so Johan Friedrich soon feels at home in the town. By 1790 he has set up the Hackman trading house, and so becomes a part of the town’s German merchant class. Hackman sells lumber, salt and colonial goods.

Vyborg is still part of Russia, and Finland’s transition from Swedish to Russian rule in 1809 is still some years off. Within a few years Finland’s centre will itself shift closer to Vyborg, when the capital city is moved from Turku to Helsinki.

By the mid-1800s Helsinki’s population has climbed to 20,000. By now it is Finland’s largest city – overtaking Turku which houses 17,000 people, and Vyborg, 8,000.

The new capital, Helsinki, grew quickly in the nineteenth century.

Among Vyborg’s residents, the growth of the new town of Helsinki does not go unnoticed. In 1859 Hackman & Co becomes a shareholder in the sugar factory in the working-class neighbourhood of Töölö. The company also owns half of the shares in the Helsinki Gas Lighting Company.

But although the company now has operations across Finland, the Hackman family stays in Vyborg. Moving in the 19th century usually means the poor relocating from one house to another. In fact, parishes have the power to ban people from moving, if there’s cause to suspect they need to rely on handouts.

The Hackmans would have had no such trouble relocating, but the family is thriving in Vyborg and so stays put – for now.

The Hackmans have become active players in the industrialisation of Finland. Hackman & Co now owns a number of sawmills around the country.

Then a mineral deposit is discovered on the family’s land in Outokumpu, North Karelia, and a few years later, the company founds, in partnership with the state, an extraction company called Outokumpu Kopparverk.

The company continues to grow, and by the 1930s Hackman & Co’s cookware manufacturing plant in Leppävirta, named Sorsakoski, employs 400 people.

But by the 1960s, things in Leppävirta have changed, and the population starts to drain away. At the same time, the school-age Hjallis Harkamo begins spending his half-term skiing holidays in Sorsakoski.

Although the Hackmans’ businesses provide jobs across Finland, the migration trends of the early 20th century are clear: the concentration of people in industrial centres has begun.

But this is only the beginning. Hardly anyone predicted the speed with which the centralisation of Finland would take off after the war.

At the end of Finland’s continuing war, 425,000 people are left homeless. Finding a new place to live is a huge effort for those returning from the front, returning evacuees, or those whose homes were destroyed in the fighting. Familiar faces in many municipalities are replaced with new arrivals, as a programme of house building for veterans takes hold across the country. The Hackmans are among those who give up land for the new building.

The urban residents and workforce of Karelia, now ceded to the Russians, are relocated to Helsinki and Lahti. Blocks of flats are quickly erected to house the newcomers. The Hackmans finally move to Helsinki. But the family’s Deaconess Institute, founded in Vyborg in the 1800s, is relocated to Lahti.

Finland is experiencing a massive structural change. 1.3 million people move from working in agriculture and forestry into the industry and service sectors. In practice, this means that one in every three workers has to change trade.

Regional policies may have a notable local impact, but how permanent is it?

Timo Aro

The state is trying to soften the impact of the structural changes by carrying out relief work in the east and north of Finland, to prevent residents quitting the areas due to labour shortages, and stop them adding to the strain on the urban centres.

Despite this, eastern Finland’s municipalities lose 26,000 residents at the beginning of the 1950s, almost equal to the entire population at that time of the town of Imatra.

“Finland has a long tradition of trying to influence migration in many different ways, through policies in local government, education and labour market policies. There may be a notable local impact, but how permanent is it? People are continuously and consistently moving from the same areas to the same areas,” migration researcher Timo Aro says.

By the mid-1970s, more than half of Finland’s population lived in cities. Urbanisation has happened exceptionally fast, within just a few decades.

Finland is changing, and changing fast. By the mid-1970s, over half of Finns live in cities. Urbanisation has happened exceptionally fast, within just a few decades.

Meanwhile the standard of living in 1970s Finland also begins to soar. Until now, work and income have determined where people live. Now Finns can for the first time afford to choose where they want to settle. As the baby boomer generation start their own families, they start to move away from the town centres, and out into suburbs and surrounding smaller towns.

Planners decide to try and use higher education to alter the shape of Finland’s internal migration. The predecessor to the University of Lapland is set up in Rovaniemi, Lapland polytechnic. Along with the growth of the welfare state and the public sector, migration starts to tail off.

”Higher education institutions are a good example of a regional policy whose effects only become visible in the long term. Even today they are a big factor in determining how attractive an area is,” Timo Aro says.

Migration may have levelled off momentarily, but Finland has changed forever. The deregulated market is becoming increasingly competitive. Hackman & Co becomes a limited liability company, Oy Hackman Ab. Herrick Hackman is the last family member to lead the company. There is nobody in the family to succeed him, and Hackman employs its first ever managing director from outside the family.

”After Herrick stepped down, the power within the family became fragmented. There was no longer anyone at the head, managing the whole,” Hjallis Harkimo says.

After retirement, Herrick starts to spend time at the family’s summer retreat in Sipoo.

”Herrick was a tough character. As a little boy I feared and respected him. This changed into a restful retirement, but until then it was pretty tough going,” Harkimo recalls.

1980s Finland is going through a boom, and Hackman is listed on the stock exchange. The company’s key focus moves from the sawmill industry to cutlery.

Lean years follow on from the good. Finland is struggling under a punishing recession. The economic situation puts a stranglehold on migration for a few years.

After the depression it becomes clear that there’s no return to how things used to be. New jobs don’t grow up in the old industrial areas, agriculture or the public sector. Instead the growth is centred on a few urban areas.

By 2013 the so-called metropolitan area is home to a quarter of the country’s entire population.

”If we look at how the population has developed, this isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. Centralisation has been happening from the 1880s onwards,” Aro says.

It’s not a question of where the production is in Finland, but whether it’s in Finland at all.

Hjallis Harkimo

Modern-day migration is characterised by polarisation, Aro says. The two extremes are moving ever further apart.

”The further you go into the 2000s, the fewer regions we see that have any pulling power. The map is pretty lopsided. Migrants are attracted to cities which have a large enough population and employment prospects, varied industries and skillsets, and which have a good reputation,” Aro says.

There’s unlikely to be any end in sight. The idea of maintaining the economic viability of the whole country is really quite utopian.

”I would hope that some facts would be recognised in 2014: where people live, where the jobs are, where has pulling power and where people feel they have a potential future. Daydreaming about how to keep the whole country inhabited is beautiful, but impossible,” Aro says.

Hjallis Harkimo, who’s lived in Helsinki and Sipoo his whole life, also believes further concentration of people and jobs is inevitable. There are no more great industrial families setting up sawmills in different regions of the country, attracting people and creating jobs and spending power.

”It’s not a question of where the production is in Finland, but whether it’s in Finland at all,” he says.

Just enter the name of a town in each field, and the movement between the two will be given along with the route travelled on the map.
Published 9 December 2014. Text: Anna Takala, Tuomo Björksten. Images: 1880s: Tammerkoski, Tampere; 1890s: A granary; 1900s: Parliamentary elections, Nurmijärvi; 1910s: Civil Guards, Salo; 1920s: Fennia, Helsinki; 1930s: Paper machine; 1940s: Jyväskylä; 1950s: River dredging, Palojoki; 1960s: Helsinki; 1970s: Espoo Town Hall; 1980s: Oulu Technology hub; 1990s: Derelict village shop; 2000s: Sundsberg, Kirkkonummi. Image sources: Lehtikuva, Åbo Akademi, National Board of Antiquities, Yle's Archives, The Museum of North Ostrobothnia, Panu Söderström. Video: Tuomo Björksten. Statistics: Statistics Finland. Technical design: Ville Juutilainen. Graphics: Juha Rissanen.