"There was never a night that could defeat sunrise.” These words are very apt for describing the turnaround in the Finnish economy in 2017. After years of withering, Finland’s economy is now growing at a brisk pace. The latest estimates show that our gross domestic product has grown this year by more than three per cent. This turnaround has indeed been faster than anybody could have foreseen a year ago.
The upturn in the economy can be seen in people’s daily lives, in many different ways. Most important of all is the increase in the number of jobs. According to the most recent figures from Statistics Finland, the number of people in employment in November was actually 83,000 more than a year earlier. This is equivalent to the creation of 230 new jobs every single day over the past year. By November, the number of employed people had risen to 70.4 per cent of the working age population, the highest percentage for ten years.
The number of unemployed jobseekers is also falling rapidly right now. Figures from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment show that in November there were 57,000 fewer unemployed jobseekers than there were 12 months ago. This is equivalent to saying that for every day of the past year 160 unemployed people either found a job or their unemployment ended for some other reason.
It is especially gratifying that the increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment are now happening throughout the country. Companies, large and small, are hiring new people. There must now be a focus on ensuring that companies can find the staff they need to fill their vacancies.
The economic turnaround has been achieved through the joint efforts of all concerned. As a result, the news headlines on the economy are now dominated by new investments and jobs rather than the news of codetermination talks and redundancies that we had been hearing for so many years.
This transformation is also evident in the general mood. People are now more confident about the future than they have been for a long time.
Work is the best medicine for combating social exclusion and reducing inequality. That’s why boosting employment is the Government’s most important goal, and will remain so.
The Government wants to make sure that the fruits of growth can be enjoyed in all sectors of society. We have also sought to ensure that the burden of economic belt-tightening has been shared as fairly as possible. It is therefore very pleasing to see that income disparities did not widen at all last year, according to the latest data – contrary to the impression given in the public debate on the matter.
As growth gathers pace, special attention must be given to preventing a widening of income disparities. This will call for particular restraint to be shown by those who determine top salaries and fees. Setting a good example is also important for enhancing competitiveness in the economy. Pay moderation will continue to be needed.
Although the latest news on the economy is positive, we should not rest on our laurels. We must try to anticipate longer term changes in society. Many of the changes expected in the future are easily seen as threats. Familiar occupations will disappear as advances in technology are made. There are people and regions that are in danger of getting left behind. Looking at climate change, it is difficult to foresee all the effects that it will have. Our common challenge is to identify the biggest future issues and to search for the right solutions to them.
We already know that schooling and education will continue to be essential factors in Finland’s success. To mention just one example here, it is time we began to openly talk about extending the period of compulsory education, at the start and/or at the end, in the interests of our children.
Besides the economic upturn, the year now drawing to a close has been characterised by the ‘Together’ theme of the Finland 100 centenary celebrations. A century has now passed since Finland gained its sovereign independence. This was truly a year that we celebrated together. As many as 600,000 Finns took part in planning the great variety of events marking the centenary year. More than 5,000 separate projects were registered in the official programme of centenary events. Civil society in Finland has clearly demonstrated its strength.
We also established two new Independence Day traditions. Independence Day eve, on 5 December, became a joyful national celebration. This sits nicely alongside the more solemn way of honouring our independence on 6 December.
For me as Prime Minister, the high point of the centenary year events was the national children’s event to celebrate Finland’s 100th anniversary, held on 5 December at the House of the Estates in Helsinki. This, too, should surely be turned into an annual tradition. The future belongs to our younger generations, so they deserve their own celebration.
Now it is the turn of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to hold their centenary celebrations – each in their own way. May I congratulate our neighbours most heartily. We are united by history and by a shared future of great opportunities.
Estonians, in particular, embraced our centenary year to the full, treating it as their own. The relations between our two countries are enjoying a very active phase. A firm indication of the level of ambition in our collaboration is the project to build a tunnel between Finland and Estonia.
A key strength of Finnish society has been its cohesion. Cohesion is, of course, essential, but its preservation should not be taken for granted. This is worth remembering as we usher in 2018, following this year’s celebration of the centenary of Finland’s independence. The new year will mark a century since Finland became split in two, in a way that is still painfully recalled.
I hope we can join together to commemorate this centenary of the Finnish Civil War, rather than revisit the lines of demarcation that divided us in 1918.
I have agreed with the parliamentary party chairs that we shall begin the Civil War commemorative year with a joint occasion to emphasise reconciliation, democracy and the integrity of society.
To quote Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This message can also serve as a basis for marking our commemorative year.
Together we have come through the trials of the past 100 years, and only by continuing to work together can we get through the next 100 years.