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"In order to lead a longer and healthier life, ypu should be a well-to-do educated married woman with children and a white-collar job. These are the best ingredients of old age," says Tapani Valkonen

Excursions into the boundaries of life and death: How to postpone your own mortality

Anna-Maija Gruber

 

This year, the Finnish Cultural Foundation granted one of its three annual special awards, amounting to FIM 150,000, to Professor Tapani Valkonen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki, ex-Academy Professor and the leading Finnish demographer. The award was a tribute to his extensive research on “population and society, individual life and death”. It may well be said that population studies and demography as a systematic subject at the University of Helsinki was started by him in the 1970s.

Mankind has always been fascinated by the secrets of a long, healthy life, and popula- tion study is actually one of the oldest empirical sciences. Professor Tapani Valkonen has turned his keen interest into a life-long study which concentrates on the various socio-economic phenomena, inequalities and changes that influence individual, regional and national mortality.

The excellent, reliable and extensive Finnish population registers and statistics starting from the 18th century have provided unique material for social demography and have made Finland a leading country in this respect and the object of international interest.

Pleased to meet the secrets of a long life?

“In order to lead a longer and healthier life, you should be a well-to-do educated married woman with children and a white-collar job. These are the best ingredients for old age,” says Valkonen.

His recent studies have demonstrated noticeable differences in life expectancy between various parts of the Helsinki metropolitan area, for example. Especially men in wealthier suburbs tend to live more than 10 years longer than their counterparts in the poorer areas. “But it does not pay to move from one part of the city to another just to live longer. The address is just a result of the many other socio-economical factors that really count,” Valkonen points out.

Being single – one of today’s big trends – has also proved to be a real risk from the point of view of life expectancy. “Marriage, or partnership, seems to have a great influence on the number of years that are likely to come. For divorced men, the risk of premature death is as much as double. The same applies to widowers and widows. Widows seem to adapt to the new situation in a couple of years, but for widowers, the risk is evident,” says Valkonen citing his results.

“To live longer, or even forever, has always been one of man’s dreams. Now that people live longer than ever before, it suddenly seems to be a problem – for society,” says Valkonen with a smile and refers to current retirement issues.

In Finland, at present, the life expectancy for women is 81 years and for men, about 74 years.

Baby boomers and other challenges

The population of Finland has experienced huge changes in the last 100 years. “The number of Finns has more than doubled in 100 years, from less than 2.5 to over 5 million people, but the growth has not been even,” says Valkonen.

After the hard times of the ’30s and the war years there was an unprecedented baby boom. Now the baby boomers are approaching their sixties and retirement, and their life expectancy is of special interest to society and decision-makers for many reasons, most of them economic.

“The total population is growing slowly at the moment, but the number of old people is increasing rapidly. This trend has been evident for decades, but all of the political conclusions have not yet been drawn,” is Valkonen’s comment on the current discussion about the costs of retirement and the growing healthcare needs of old people.

“If our economy continues to prosper, as is expected, it will be no problem to provide the necessary money. On the other hand, money alone will not solve everything, since it will also be a question of employing enough people to care for senior citizens,” he says.

Some challenges for a population researcher have been hard to anticipate, for example the effects of the birth-control pill in the ’60s, the extensive emigration to Sweden in the ’60s and ’70s, and the strong fluctuations in the movement from the countryside to towns and cities that are still going on.

Comparisons of international interest

In 1978, Statistics Finland and the Department of Sociology of the University of Helsinki established the EKSY database, which for the first time linked census and mortality data on the basis of personal identity codes. This was the start of a collaboration that has been going on for 20 years and which has enabled new and profound explanations of the socio-economic reasons for mortality.

The Finnish studies have also interested foreign universities and researchers and led to various joint projects with e.g. American, Norwegian and Russian partners. Currently a study of the mortality of old people is being financed by the EU. The advanced Finnish statistics provide useful material for comparison that has been found useful in many projects and studies.

A lifetime of sociology and demography

Sociology and social demography have fascinated Professor Valkonen ever since he was in high school. He has been Professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Helsinki since 1977, and was nominated Academy Professor for 1990 – 1996. At present, he is one of the six temporary professors of urban studies, jointly started and financed by the City of Helsinki, the Ministry of Education and the University of Helsinki in 2000.