At 70, Sirkka Hämäläinen feels free to smile a little bit
Retired Bank of Finland governor wants medical cannabis legalised
By Esa Lilja
Perhaps someone might learn something from this.
It has been 50 years since economist Sirkka Hämäläinen first sat in a working group pondering cyclical policy, and how to stimulate the economy. The result of the meditation was, more or less: it’s hopeless!
“We noted that it is not possible to jump start the economy with money”, Hämäläinen says.
Since then she has seen the same scenario play out a hundred times: somewhere the economy overheats, and then collapses, and then stimulus is attempted.
“The emergence of bubbles needs to be prevented, but time and time again, the attempt fails.”
Hämäläinen feels that a free economy and “long-term greed” are excellent things as such. But moderation is lacking.
“In good times, nobody wants to apply the brakes.”
Hämäläinen believes that the newest crisis will still go “quite deep”, and that the recovery will not happen very quickly. “It will be a long time before the unemployment situation stops getting worse, for instance”, she says.
“And last time, growth was based on a frenzy on the part of American consumers. That help is not coming now.”
Home, religion and country - and hard work - were the “important principles of the countryside”, which Hämäläinen learned in her home in Hausjärvi.
“And tolerance. My mother emphasised that. It was not permissible to categorise anyone on any basis.”
There were three children in the farming family. The daughters went to school, and the brother stayed behind to work the farm. Hämäläinen got a model from her mother, who worked as a home economics teacher and housewife, combining work and family.
Hämäläinen did well at school - only her grade in vocal music was average. “Even that was given as an act of mercy.”
She left home to study, leaving by train from the railway station at Hikiä - known colloquially as Takahikiä.
When she was young, she was reluctant to talk much about her rural background, and in the Finland of the 1960s and 1970s she was also reticent about mentioning that she was married to a military officer.
“They were not very popular things at that time. It was not until I was older that I realised that the opinions of others are not important in life.”
Hämäläinen began her university studies in law school, but the job prospects of female lawyers appeared to be limited to those of a notary public or archivist. Consequently she switched to economics, and Hämäläinen established one of the most impressive careers in the Bank of Finland, the Ministry of Finance, and the European Central Bank.
When, as a young economist, Hämäläinen went somewhere with a male colleague, the woman was always assumed to be a secretary. Now she feels that equality prevails in Finland - at least nominally.
“However, there is still a strong latent macho culture here. Women are still not always heard.”
The 1980s were in many ways a “terrible time” for Hämäläinen herself. “It seemed like all of life focussed on economics and nothing else. It was somehow frightening.”
At the end of the decade she set up a Akkasauna - a sauna group for influential Finnish women as a counterforce to all the male sauna groups.
“It was a counterweight for girls, so that we would not sink too deep into our own worlds. Men are never spoken about there.”
Over the years Hämäläinen has been characterised in many different ways: as an inflation hawk, an iron lady, a good guy, and as Europe’s toughest central banker, who did not exude maternity. Or as Left Alliance MP Esko Seppänen said, the Finnish Margaret Thatcher, and a proper vegetarian.
Hämäläinen herself remembers one comment from the 1990s. She was asked why she never smiles.
“There were 200,000 unemployed in the country, and there were fears that it would rise to 600,000. How was the Governor of the Bank of Finland supposed to smile?”
In her work, Hämäläinen has represented various institutions all of her life. Now she is retired and is free to say what she thinks, and it feels good.
For instance, she recently pondered in an interview programme on YLE Radio why the elderly in Finland are kept in bed on morphine or tranquillisers, while medical cannabis is sharply condemned.
“In an old people’s home I would certainly prefer pain medication with pleasant side effects.”
Hämäläinen is a politically non-committed friend of music and the theatre. While at the Bank of Finland, she would go to the cellar of the building to practice target shooting with Harri Holkeri, a member of the bank's board.
Hämäläinen is in her second marriage, and her 70th birthday is also the tenth wedding anniversary for her and former Fortum President Bo Lindfors.
Hämäläinen serves on the boards of the elevator and escalator manufacturer Kone, the media company Sanoma, and the Swedish company Investor.
She also chairs the board of the Finnish National Opera, and is one of Finland’s highest-paid pensioners. Nevertheless she feels that it is difficult for anyone who is just a little bit elderly to work to benefit society.
“In many countries, experienced people are listened to even when they are in their 90s. In Finland the attitude is difficult. I feel that an historical perspective would also be important for excellent modern leaders as well. There is no need to re-invent the wheel - or bubbles.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.5.2009
On her birthday, Sirkka Hämäläinen was travelling. She asked that in lieu of gifts, well-wishers could make a donation to AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe. The bank account is Nordea 174530–61657, Center for Zimbabwe Orphans.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sirkka Hämäläinen: Europe well prepared for slower growth (22.8.2001)
US economic crisis, Finnish déjà vu (21.9.2008)
Former Governor of Bank of Finland to head new Finnish National Opera Board (8.3.2007)
ESA LILJA / Helsingin Sanomat