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Born in 1959: The last happy generation

Remarkable Jyväskylä University longitudinal study examines one age-cohort from 1968 to the present

Born in 1959: The last happy generation
Born in 1959: The last happy generation
Born in 1959: The last happy generation
Born in 1959: The last happy generation
Born in 1959: The last happy generation
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By Pekka Hakala
      Students in their twenties, out doing the rounds of the bars, throng the pedestrian precinct of Kauppakatu in Jyväskylä late on Friday evening.
      The clock is ticking towards midnight when Kari Kempas, 51, stuffs his harmonica into his pocket in a now-empty restaurant on Kauppakatu.
      He has just finished an hour-long set in the Freetime Club upstairs, as the vocalist and harp man for blues outfit Tortilla Flat.
"It was right here, with my mother, that I first went to the movies", recalls Kempas, who moved from Jyväskylä to Helsinki after elementary school.
      "I don't remember what the movie was called, but it was the one with Paul Robeson in it, singing Ol' Man River. My mother told me that he was singing a Negro spiritual. It was the first experience I had had of a black man singing."
      The film in question was of course the stage-to-film adaptation of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, set on a Mississippi river-boat, from 1936.
At the time when Kempas saw it, Show Boat had long since been withdrawn from circulation in the United States, first because MGM wanted the field clear for their own version that eventually appeared in 1951, but also because of Robeson's outspoken views on civil rights for African Americans and his alleged membership of the Communist Party, which was anathema to an America under McCarthyism.
      Fortunately this ban had no effect on the managers of cinemas in Jyväskylä in the early 1960s, and the singing of black bluesmen swept Kempas away.
      When he is not fronting Tortilla Flat, Kempas works as a doorman and caretaker in the Helsinki suburb of Kannelmäki.
But he is not just any old Finnish man. He belongs to a rare age-cohort, those born in 1959.
      The rarity is not so much one of numbers - 83,252 others were born in that year, over 20,000 more than in 2009, which was itself regarded as a bumper year and the first time since 1996 that annual births in this country had topped 60,000.
      What makes these people unusual is that they are Finland's most closely documented vintage, as the lives of several hundred of them have been followed from 1968 onwards by a longitudinal study of personality and social development entitled Lapsesta aikuiseksi ("From Childhood to Adulthood") run by the University Of Jyväskylä's Psychology Department.
      In other words, they have been under the microscope for more than forty years.
The participants were eight-year-old second grade pupils when the study was launched.
      The sample comprised 12 complete school classes (196 boys and 173 girls) drawn randomly from the schools of a mid-sized town in Central Finland - in this case, Jyväskylä.
      The most recent research paper was published in August, and covers the participants as they reach the big 5-0.
The report reveals a group of middle aged Finns beavering away at their careers and with Finnish family-oriented values.
      A vanishing or vanished waistline, blood pressure worries, and alcohol problems cloud the lives of many, but all in all those in the programme are quite astonishingly satisfied with their lives - in fact more content with things in general than they were for instance ten years ago.
The older brothers and sisters of this 1959 cohort formed the post-war baby boomer generation.
      Finland's baby boom period runs from 1945, when annual live births shot up by 16,000 to hit 96,000, through the 100,000-plus years of the late 1940s, and is generally regarded as ending in the early 1950s, when the number of live births dipped below 8,000 a month once more.
      If the baby boom generation has an established name, and our cohort's little brothers and sisters declared themselves "Generation X" in the 1990s as they discovered they had become the victims of that earlier demographic bulge and all those baby boomers crowding the job market, then those who fall between these two periods are condemned to anonymity: they have no distinguishing title.
      How are they to be defined?
This relatively conservative generation born at the tail end of the 1950s waded through the radical years of the 1960s in the hand-me-down boots of their older brothers and sisters.
      They were too young by half to be out on the barricades in 1968 or at the big rock festivals of the turn of the decade.
      Bulky gramophones attached to valve radios with names like Hilversum and Luxemburg printed on the tuning dial played Brita Koivunen's Jambalaya, and later The Beatles, and in the more progressive households a black-and-white television appeared in the corner of the living room.
"I think we must have got the telly among the very first to have one", recalls Jaana Holopainen, 51, in her red-brick house on the north side of Jyväskylä.
      The Holopainens' company does heating and ventilation design work from an office in the same building.
      Jaana Holopainen was born Jaana Niinikangas , one of six children.
      The father of the household was a foreman at the Schauman Plywood Mill, and the family lived in a big wooden house owned by the company.
      "We had eighteen armchairs in the living room. They were arranged in rows, and all the neighbours came in to watch television."
      The viewers watched domestic TV-theatre and listened to radio plays around the radiogram.
In the mornings, the breakfast staple was porridge, and everybody had to swallow a spoonful of Möller's cod liver oil to keep the doctor away.
      In the school canteen, the generation was introduced to little triangles of Viola processed cheese wrapped in silver foil and clumsily put onto pieces of crispbread by hand.
      The school's fish soup was made from chunks of frozen pollock (saithe, seiti in Finnish).
For the summers, the Niinikangas brood abandoned their spacious town residence and crammed into a 20 square-metre summer cabin in the Sulkuranta allotment district of Jyväskylä.
      Jaana learnt to swim at the age of two in the waters of Jyväsjärvi, into which the city and the nearby factories poured their effluent without a care in the world.
      "It was wonderful there. Hordes of kids to play with, and events, and games", says Holopainen of Sulkuranta.
      "I never got a rash from the water, and nobody else ever came down with anything, either. Of course there was a lot of talk about the pollution, and pieces in the newspapers. They measured the concentration of e-coli bacteria in the lake every summer."
There was a well in Sulkuranta, but the German visitors of their neighbour Lotte - who had married a Finn and settled here - would go down to the lake and take the brown water from there and put it into a bottle for drinking.
      "Lotte tried to tell them that it was so dirty you could only swim in it, and even then you ought to wash it off in the sauna", laughs Holopainen.
Those who were born at the end of the 1950s were the first to start learning English in the third grade of elementary school.
      Whether or not this was the reason, this generation became more international than their immediate predecessors: this was the first "Interrail generation", with the teenage sons and daughters of the Finnish middle-classes being sent off to language courses in Brighton and Cambridge in the summers.
      Something resembling civics was introduced to the school curriculum for the first time, and a little later teachers even started giving some kind of sex education.
The comprehensive school system did not have a chance to affect these young people.
      The working-class lot went on from elementary school to a general secondary school, and thence went into working life.
      Grammar schools, offering a path to further education, were mainly private, and pupils with ambitions in that direction would start to try to get in from the fourth grade of elementary school, not unlike the British 11-plus system.
After his parents divorced, Kari Kempas moved south with his mother to Helsinki, where they lived in Ullanlinna, though in those days it was not quite the pricey top-end residential district it is today.
      Kempas did enough at school to get himself into Norssi or Helsingin normaalilyseo ("Helsinki Normal Lyceum"), which was - and still is - among the most prestigious schools in the entire country.
      The perhaps curious word "normal" (after the École Normale in Reims) indicates that this was also a teacher-training school - it was part of the University of Helsinki.
      "I took the classical line - Latin and the whole nine yards", says Kempas. "But already by that stage music was starting to get the upper hand."
There were naturally the usual school dances, at which members of the oppositie sex took fumbling steps to get acquainted, and everyone nipped out into the yard for a clandestine drink from an illegal bottle.
      Kempas was at his first such dance in the early 1970s, at a school in Tehtaankatu, when up on stage walked the stock school hop band of the day, The Hurriganes (sic).
      The Hurriganes were later to achieve iconic status in Finland with a brand of straightforward revved-up covers of rock'n'roll classics in "pub rock" style, driven along by neanderthal drummer/vocalist Remu Aaltonen and with the later addition (from 1972) of Pekka "Albert" Järvinen, arguably Finland's finest-ever lead guitarist.
      The young Kempas was duly impressed. "They put on a good show", he recalls. "They'd clearly rehearsed the act and they had guys playing the guitar on their back, just like Hendrix."
The 1970s were to become "the decade" for these kids.
      This was a time when Finnish society became strongly politicised, and even polarised, and party politics also thrust its way into the schools.
      "They really weren't much use to anyone", says Jaana Holopainen of the School Councils, a peculiar experiment in democracy that emerged in the 1970s.
      "And when I was in the upper forms I absolutely hated the Finnish lessons, because they kept having these panel discussions. I really loathed them. All the nice reading of books and analysing them went out of the window and we had to do this stuff."
In addition to a belief in human development, party politics, and the continued dull roar of the Cold War, the decade was marked by growth pains in the economy and by two oil crises.
      At outdoor dancing places in the countryside, the neighbourhood boys would throw stones at the shiny new Volvos of their big brothers, home on vacation from the factories of Sweden, to which tens of thousands of Finns had migrated in the late 1960s.
      A nationwide police strike happened to coincide with a tour by pop/rock/punk band Sleepy Sleepers (who were later reincarnated as over-the-top showband Leningrad Cowboys), and the disaffected youth of the time were briefly able to fight and cause mayhem behind the concert venues.
Whereas the war generations had defined themselves largely through literature, for the generation that came later it was music that began to take centre stage.
      LPs were expensive, but fortunately blank cassettes were not, and they were harnessed to record the best tracks from the precious few hit parade programmes put out at the time by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE.
      And because English had been studied diligently from an early age, Uriah Heep's Lady in Black went down better with this crowd than did Vexi Salmi's Finnish cover, Nainen tummissa.
In October 1977, British punk band the Sex Pistols released their only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, and kicked off the punk wave in Europe.
Although the Pistols were prevented from making a live appearance in Finland in 1978 [the ban on their entry was officially based on the band members' criminal records], the group had a powerful effect hereabouts, as the so-called "Suomi-Rock" phenomenon raised its head in the wake of punk and new wave music.
      Hitherto, much of the material in the Finnish charts had been docile covers of British and American hits, but now there were original compositions aplenty coming out.
      The revolt in the lyrics was targeted no differently from in earlier times: the conservative values of the war generation were singled out for attack.
      In musical terms, punk and the other genres of the day were also a protest against the increasingly pompous and dinosaurish offerings of the progressive rock outfits that were popular with the baby boomer generation.
The kids of the late fifties had had this music dinned into them by their elder brothers and sisters, and many were fed up.
      A return to basics was seen to be in order.
      Those born in 1959 had just come of age when punk hit, and they populated the emerging new wave bands - three of the original members of the seminal Finnish band of the time, Eppu Normaali, were all born in this year.
But at the same time, the homogeneous culture that was typical of the growth decades after the war was by now in its death-throes, and punk did not carry off an entire age-group in the same way as had happened with earlier musical styles.
      Some of this age-group were in any case settling into adult roles.
      "Eppu Normaali were never really our thing", says Jaana Holopainen of herself and her husband Timo, a year older than her.
      The couple started going steady in 1977.
      "If we listened to anything in those days, it was more likely to have been Juice Leskinen. Or Hector. I think we even went to one of Hector's gigs."
"Oh, I went to see them at Tavastia Club and at Lepakko [a legendary and now defunct venue in a squalid former alcoholics' shelter in Helsinki's Ruoholahti]", says Kempas of the Finnish punk bands of the time.
      "And I was in London checking out bands on my summer holidays when I was still at school. But then we were listening to reggae and rhythm & blues and punk. Doctor Feelgood and the pub rock scene, all that stuff."
      Kempas also remembers well his delight at seeing blues guitarist Freddie King live in Helsinki's House of Culture in 1975, at the age of sixteen.
The "From Childhood to Adulthood" study by the University of Jyväskylä is unique even on the world scale as a longitudinal study of a specific age-cohort through the decades from the age of eight until middle age, leaning on personal interviews and medical examinations.
      The latest report roundly debunks the general misconception held by those born in 1959 that their generation has somehow been trampled underfoot by the baby boomers.
      "What was most surprising was that the people studied are on average doing very well indeed", says Academy of Finland researcher Katja Kokko, 39, from Jyväskylä University.
      "Three out of four are very satisfied with their lives, even though there are many significant risk factors in their health make-up. One important factor is that these people managed to get a firm foothold in working life before the recession of the early 1990s hit home."
"We see in them the sort of optimistic approach to life - that there are opportunities and doors to be opened, and that they will come through in one piece", says Emeritus Professor Lea Pulkkinen, now 71, who was among those who launched the Jyväskylä project in 1968.
      "When they were interviewed in their younger years, it was noticeable that growing into adulthood had taken place very quickly. Many had got themselves settled into handsome detached houses and family life already by the age of 27."
Both Pulkkinen and Kokko point to the biggest problem facing the '59ers: alcohol.
      This age-cohort entered their teens shortly after the liberalisation of alcohol sales to allow beers to be sold in supermarkets [rather than only from state-owned Alko off-licences or in restaurants], and in many cases they were wide-eyed and legless for the first time in their lives at 14.
      An early start to drinking seems to correlate directly with high consumption and with the medical problems that follow on from this.
All the same, according to the research findings, binge-drinking does not seem to be a very frequent phenomenon among the current crop of 50-year-olds.
      On the other hand, among the men in particular, they have become pretty regular drinkers: they take alcohol on average 149 days a year.
      This figure is quite high, and it seems higher still when one considers that along the way from 1968 to 2010 the serious alcoholics have in all probability dropped out of the original group of 369 schoolchildren.
So, what does this "nameless generation" do with itself these days?
      What happens in their average apartment of 109 square metres now that their adult children have fled the nest?
      After television, radio, reading the newspapers, and going for short walks, the most popular pastime according to the research is "listening to recorded music".
      "Led Zeppelin", answers Jaana Holopainen when she is questioned about her favourite band.
      Down in the Holopainens' basement are the original Zeppelin vinyl LPs, and all the old releases have been bought again on CD.
      Zeppelin front-man Robert Plant (b. 1948) still screams out Whole Lotta Love on Friday nights in thousands of Finnish living rooms, while trademark Jimmy Page (b. 1944) riffs and the power drumming of John "Bonzo" Bonham (1948-1980) rattle the wine glasses as the volume is ramped up on Stairway to Heaven.
      Jaana Holopainen admits that one of the worst family arguments she has had with her daughter followed an unsavoury incident when the daughter had taped a New Kids on the Block concert over a live video recording of Bruce Springsteen.
The truth of the matter is that the same popular music classics produced by the immediate post-war generation can also be found from the iPods and mobile phones of the twenty-somethings.
      But the difference here is that the '59 generation define themselves in great measure by music, and a good deal of this music is derived from their big brothers and their big brothers' mates.
      As so many other things have been handed down to them.
There is a creeping feeling of being "nearly but not quite there".
      "My friends and I, we were sort of semi-participants", Holopainen recalls. "We'd go to the cinema club and we even went on a few marches - 'No, No, No, to the EEC', but we were never activists".
      This sense of "semi-participation", of getting involved but not getting passionate about it, is a very distinct feature: the postmodern splintering of values touched the post-hippie generation already in the 1970s.
      Not only was the revolution going to be televised, but it had also been made into a hit Broadway musical, and who wanted any longer to camp out in a sea of mud when you could be warm and dry indoors instead?
"We were post-hippies, and post-Communists. Had the Lenin badge on our coats, if not much more. But that was only because there was no way you could belong to the other group."
      "The other group" in this context meant those who sported yellow "Be a Conservative" badges on their lapels in high school and upper secondary school.
      They were the ones at the end of the 1970s who listened to the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever.
      The more conservative fraternity would hoist a Confederate flag on the radio aerial of their used Ford Capri and blast out rockabilly from The Stray Cats or the Finnish equivalent, Teddy and the Tigers.
In the end, the most important political slogan of the punk movement proved not to be "Anarchy in Finland" but the call to get medium-strength beers sold in the chain of R-Kiosks.
      Sleepy Sleepers even wrote a song about it.
      Rather surprisingly, in the 1980s, even that demand was met.
It is perhaps a beautiful achievement for the generation that inherited the liberalism of the Woodstock generation.
      For the late-fifties generation that grew up in the smoke of factory chimneys and cigarettes, rode their Jopo bicycles fearlessly without a helmet, didn't use seat-belts, and didn't know anything about car safety seats or winter speed limits.
      For the crowd whose '60s and '70s games in the milieus of farmhouse or smokestack Finland would in these more tight-assed times probably lead to their being swiftly taken into foster care by the child protection authorities.
"There is these days a certain conservative strain about in society that harks back to the 1950s", says Kari Kempas of the current social climate in Finland.
      "I mean, take this whole racism thing. It is spreading, even though people travel here and there all over the world, and you would think that they have got used to each other by now. I don't know. Maybe it is just that people want to be stuck in their own little pigeonholes."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 31.10.2010

The link below provides more information on the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development (JYLS), though for perfectly natural reasons the university and the researchers do not make public the names of those who took part in the project. For reference, the writer of this article Pekka Hakala was born on May 29th, 1959. The translator, on the other hand, is a late-model baby boomer and card-carrying Deadhead.

  The Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development

PEKKA HAKALA / Helsingin Sanomat

  2.11.2010 - THIS WEEK
 Born in 1959: The last happy generation

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