Finland: Changes in working life 1977–2013

A new report captures the changes in Finnish working life between 1977 and 2013. It points to a labour market that offers good opportunities for individual development and training. Nevertheless, many workers are uncertain about their future, with 20% fearing they would be made redundant.

Background and objectives of the study

Since 1977, Finland's national statistical institution, Statistics Finland, has carried out extensive, interview-based Quality of Work Life Surveys, on employees’ working conditions. In November 2014, it published an extensive report that gives a detailed description of changes in Finnish working life between 1977 and 2013 (in Finnish, 7.11 MB PDF)., a span of 36 years.

Methodology

Seven surveys have been carried out since 1977, every five to seven years. Interview samples have varied in size between 3,800 and 7,500 employees.

Each respondent takes part in a one-hour face-to-face interview and answers questions about their physical, psychological and social working environment, as well as their work experiences. Questions relate to such issues as:

  • employment status;
  • working conditions;
  • motivation;
  • absences;
  • experience of combining work and family life.

Some parts of the survey have evolved to adapt to changes in working life; however, some key themes and questions have remained constant over 36 years, permitting the comparison of data. These questions examine such issues as:

  • opportunities for development at the workplace;
  • physical and mental strain resulting from work;
  • factors contributing to uncertainty at the workplace;
  • the extent of psychological and bodily ill-health.

Details of the survey can also be found in Eurofound’s Report on national working conditions surveys in Europe: A compilation. Besides drawing some conclusions about changes in Finnish working life, the study also includes some international comparisons based on the European Working Condition Survey (EWCS) and on Eurostat data.

Structural changes

The report illustrates how markedly the structure of the Finnish working population has changed. The workforce in 1977 was characterised by a number of features.

  • The average age of the workforce was relatively low, the post-war 'baby boomer' generation having only recently entered the labour market.
  • Only 10% of the workforce had a tertiary-level education.
  • The vast majority of workers left school with only a primary education.
  • Blue-collar workers comprised nearly half the workforce.

In 2013, the workforce was very different.

  • The average age of the working population had increased by over seven years.
  • Some 46% of the workforce had completed tertiary education.
  • Just 10% of employees had only a primary level of education.
  • Blue-collar workers comprised less than 30% of the workforce.

Key findings

The development of the Finnish labour market has not been straightforward. The slump in the 1990s had visible effects, despite the fact that the two surveys carried out in this decade did not coincide with the worst phases of the recession.

Increased time pressure, less control of pace of work

In the 1990s, there was a marked increase in workers experiencing time pressure. In the public sector, the workload increased but without a corresponding increase in the number of employees. In the private sector globalisation led to increased competition and productivity demands.

In 1977, some 18% of respondents reported experiencing a high degree of strain related to time pressure. By 1997, this figure had increased to 33%. However, in 2013, it had fallen to 28%.

Changes in the pace of work are also reflected in data concerning employees’ opportunities to influence their own work: opportunities to influence work have increased, but workers feel less able to control the pace of work through choice of work content and ways of working than they did in 1977.

Rise and fall in use of fixed-term contracts

In the 1990s, the use of fixed-term contracts also rose steeply. However, policies to limit the use of such contracts seem to have been successful: following changes in the law, the share of employees in fixed-term employment, which peaked at almost 20% in 1997, has since fallen to 10%, the same level as in the 1980s.

There are substantial gender differences in terms of fixed-term employment: in 2013, the share of employees in fixed-term employment was twice as high among women (16%) as among men (8%). This discrepancy is unusual in Europe, but the Finnish labour market is largely gender-segregated and most family leave is taken by women. This leads to a greater need for short-term replacements for workers on family leave in female-dominated sectors. Eurostat figures indicate that in 2013, the extent of temporary employement in the EU28 was almost the same for men as for women (13% and 14% respectively), the equivalent figures in Finland being 12% and 18% .

Extent of physical and mental strain remains stable

Results for physical and mental strain at work have remained surprisingly stable since 1977. Levels of both types of strain increased between 1990 and 2008, but the share of employees who consider their job being very, or somewhat, physically demanding was lowest in the 2013 survey (32%, compared with 34% in 1977).

Nature of work becomes increasingly important

The study also reveals a substantial change in the way that employees view their work. The share of employees who consider the kind of work they do as more important than how much they are paid has increased. However, this viewpoint is clearly tied to the type of work being performed; 36% of workers in manufacturing see pay as more important, well above the average of 16% for all wage and salary earners. This development in the appreciation of the nature of work mirrors changes in the educational and occupational structure of the population; it may also be explained by the efforts made to develop work content.

Finland scores well in employee autonomy

The survey report finds that, in comparison with other countries, working life in Finland is characterised by a number of factors:

  • good possibilities for individual development and training;
  • being at forefront of developing new ways of organising work, such as flexible working hours and teleworking;
  • relatively flat hierarchies;
  • high levels of direct communication between workers and superiors;
  • a high degree of teamwork;
  • considerable autonomy and involvement of employees in improving their own work.

In terms of autonomy and involvement, Eurofound’s fifth European Working Conditions Survey indicates that the share of employees who felt that they could influence important decisions about work was highest in Finland (57%, in comparison to 40% in the EU27 in 2013).

Opportunities for career development and training on the rise

The study shows that the opportunities for career development have steadily increased: while 28% of respondents reported having good opportunities in 1977, by 2013 this had risen to 45%. Over the same period, there was a notable increase in access to training. In 1977, some 27% of respondents had accessed training in the previous 12 months; by 2013, this had risen to 61%.

More employees report to female boss, diversity more welcomed

Since 1997 the Work Life Survey has included questions on gender equality. In 1997, some 25% of respondents said gender equality measures were ‘very good’ at their work places; this risen to 40% in 2013. The share of female superiors has also increased steadily, from 26% in 1984 to 41% in 2013. In all the waves of the EWCS since 1995, Finland has been among the leading countries in terms of gender equality. In the 2010 wave, 38% of Finnish employees reported that their immediate boss was a woman, putting Finland in fourth place after Estonia, Sweden and the UK. Although women report less discrimination in terms of pay in Finland than in other countries, the gender pay gap nonetheless remains high.

Improvements can also be seen in indicators linked to employees’ age and ethnic background. According to the report, the skills of of older workers are now more valued and attitudes towards foreign co-workers have become more positive.

Work satisfaction up, despite uncertainty

Since 2008, employees’ job satisfaction has increased considerably, especially with regard to social relationships in the workplace and management style.

The 2013 results, however, also reflect how people’s attitudes have been affected by several years of recession. The most evident is a record level of uncertainty. As many as 20% of respondents were afraid that they would lose their jobs; this fear seems well founded, 25% of respondents reporting that there had been staff cuts in their workplaces in the previous three years.

However, the study shows that uncertainty and the scarcity of jobs also increase the appreciation of work. Since 2008, the share of employees who see employment as a crucial part of life has increased from 54% to 58%. The last time such a big increase occurred was between the 1990 and the 1997 surveys, which clearly correlates with the 1990s recession.

Comment

A sustainable working life is clearly the highest priority in Finland, and this aim of prolonging one’s career plays an important part in the policies needed to create an equally sustainable welfare system.

To a large extent, the impressive developments shown in the study can be attributed to the strong role of social partners, and to the Finnish government’s track record of making working-life development a priority. In 2012, a new policy initiative was adopted, the National Working Life Development Strategy. This takes, as its starting-point, the need to increase the competitiveness of the Finnish economy. The strategy has been prepared by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy with cooperation from social partners and other stakeholders. It states that productivity and profitability can be increased in a sustainable way by attending to the quality of working life and well-being.

Despite doing well in comparison with other Member States, Finland faces many challenges until it can achieve the overall vision of the National Working Life Development Strategy – to make Finnish working life the best in Europe by 2020.

 

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