In Other Words

The Nokia Generation Hangs Up

On days when the share price of the Nokia telephone company stock falls sharply, Finns realize they live in a high-tech banana republic. The cellular revolution of the 1980s and 1990s permanently wired Nokia and Finland together, as candy bar-shaped mobile phones propelled an unobtrusive country from Europe’s northern edge into the center of the ...

On days when the share price of the Nokia telephone company stock falls sharply, Finns realize they live in a high-tech banana republic. The cellular revolution of the 1980s and 1990s permanently wired Nokia and Finland together, as candy bar-shaped mobile phones propelled an unobtrusive country from Europe’s northern edge into the center of the global marketplace. Nokia, named after a Finnish river, accounts for around 38 percent of the value of the Helsinki stock exchange and one fifth of Finnish exports. Yet, while Nokia’s slogan, "Connecting People," epitomizes the global conquest of mobile phones, many young Finns feel more disconnected from their compatriots than ever. As a result, Finland’s 30-something writers are searching for meaning beyond the materialism of the unpredictable information technology (IT) industry.

Two major contributions come from young, first-time Finnish authors who capture a generation’s moral and ideological disillusionment, a mood that has also crept into such films as Nousukausi ("The Boom") and Levottomat ("The Restless"), and into the television series Irtiottoja ("Breaking Loose"). Riku Korhonen’s dark, collage-style novel of a Finnish housing project, Kahden ja yhden yön tarinoita (Tales of a Two and One Nights), earned him the prestigious Helsingin Sanomat Debut Award. Laura Honkasalo’s Sinun lapsesi eivät ole sinun (Your Children Are Not Yours) chronicles Finland’s uneasy maneuvering between Soviet and Western influences during the Cold War, an experience that left many Finns estranged in a new world of euros and open markets.

Korhonen depicts the lives of some 30 urban protagonists much more realistically than many readers can handle. Several young characters perish in gloomy circumstances, some committing suicide. (Finland’s suicide rate is among the highest in Europe). The lucky ones survive miserably, enduring rapes, bizarre accidents, or simply harassment and cruelty. Their housing project was erected in a rush of aspiration and new wealth. Yet, when some of the residents begin to die of cancer, it is revealed that the complex was built on a toxic dump site, rendering many of the remaining inhabitants homeless. Korhonen’s fictional anthology rings true to a generation whose formative experiences include the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986.

Why such gloom from Finland’s new intelligentsia? Their trauma in many ways resembles the bewilderment of young East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events left young Finns feeling orphaned both by external events and their parents’ discredited values, sentiments amplified by a sharp economic downturn in the early 1990s. With unprecedented opportunity and liberty in the air, Finland’s youth reaped the rewards of white-collar prosperity. But now, they complain that they have no moral compass. One of Korhonen’s protagonists, Anni, a student, captures this yearning. "If reaching adulthood requires traditions, are traditions vehicles for alienation from the world?" she asks. "Shouldn’t traditions, on the contrary, make the world your home? Have they transformed into individual quirks?"

Korhonen’s novel arrives at a time when traditional Finnish values of patriotism, hard work, and brutal honesty seem useless as old industries are dismantled and cosmopolitan self-promoters dominate the marketplace. Although Nokia did not triumph overnight, its success accelerated the myth of a "year zero," a clean break from the Finland of old times. The best and the brightest of the Chernobyl generation directed their efforts toward international business, IT, and the media, abandoning domestic politics and civil service (the old routes to the top). Yet the Nokia boom does not offer much confidence for long-term happiness, either. "If Nokia were to stumble, the tremors would be felt throughout Finland," the Financial Times warned recently.

Finland’s ideological past only compounds the confusion. After resisting the Red Army for several months in the 1939 Soviet-Finnish War, Finland emerged from peace negotiations in 1947 with a fragile, Soviet-oriented form of sovereignty. Strong ties to Moscow were a fact of life among politicians and the secret services; membership in the European Union or NATO seemed out of the question. Although democratic and free in principle, Finland tried for four decades to please both sides of the Iron Curtain, trading real pluralism for uneasy security. No wonder many baby boomers turned into enthusiastic communists in the 1960s and 1970s — a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome (attachment to one’s oppressors) — raising their children to resist "imperialist" bubble gum and Coca-Cola, to scorn "sexist" Barbie dolls, and to fear the U.S. nuclear arsenal while branding Soviet nukes "weapons of peace." Now that generation must grapple with the realization that their families were on the wrong side of history.

Honkasalo’s Your Children Are Not Yours recreates the Soviet-style upbringing that many contemporary 30-somethings experienced. When it was released in 2001, the book sparked a national debate on the legacy of Finnish communism, which dominated universities, media, and cultural circles in the 1970s.

The book title plays on a Soviet adage that emphasizes communal responsibility of rearing children. Honkasalo deploys the phrase sarcastically, tweaking the ex-revolutionaries and former upright Communists who neglect their children as they rush toward careerism and capitalism. The mother of Nelli, a young translator struggling with underpaid part-time jobs, breaks with her ideological past. Her father long ago left the family to pursue an academic career in Canada. Nelli’s younger brother, Juri — named after famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin — accuses her of drifting aimlessly in a "nostalgic bubble" of Communist chic. "Commie raves at the New Student House, leftist loonism, Stalinist retro pop. Grow up," he admonishes. "Bah," Nelli retorts, "Leftism is not automatically pathetic nostalgia." In Finland, adults found it easier to cope with the end of the Cold War than did their children; the younger ones were caught in the paradox that the Finland of their childhood was too bleakly Soviet to embrace and too Western to reject.

Korhonen and Honkasalo accuse the older generation of being materialistic, greedy, and desperate to be upwardly mobile after decades of conformity. In return, the younger ones turn their back on old notions of social consensus and lose more sleep over the possibility of a Nokia stock crash than over the fading prospect of nuclear war. In the midst of apparent abundance, this generation copes with anxiety and cynicism and — as befits the age of venture capital — searches for exit strategies.

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