On one sunny autumn afternoon in Finland, I felt the desire for a cup of coffee. Thus, during my short work break, I ventured out to a nearby cafe. The establishment was bustling with people, but I managed to place an order for coffee and a slice of cheesecake. The friendly barista directed me to wait at a nearby table. Before long, my coffee arrived, and as I sat there, I overheard a conversation at a neighbouring table. The discussion took place in English, making it easy for me to understand, since the speakers were seated close to me.

These two individuals, who hailed from different countries, were engaged in a dialogue about unemployment, as well as work-related matters and their experiences in Finland. As someone familiar with similar topics due to my own professional background, it was nothing out of the ordinary to hear such a discussion within the foreign-origin communities in Finland. However, what caught my attention were two particular words that resonated strongly with me. These words, “they” and “we”, have become quite prevalent in online discussions, appearing frequently in chats, comments, blogs, and even videos. Yet I now found myself unexpectedly encountering them in a random cafe conversation in Finland.

As soon as those words reached my ears, I delved into my own personal experiences. These terms have become all too familiar to me, echoing through social media and live workshops. As a researcher, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were the sole cause of the integration issues or if there was more to the story. Deep down, I knew that there was much more complexity involved. However, as an average struggling immigrant who arrived in this country as a master’s student, eventually making my way into PhD research and working in Finland for the past decade with different organizations, these two words struck me on multiple levels.

Let’s take a closer look at these words, examine them separately, and then explore their connection to recent research.

WE: The international workforce and people of foreign origin in Finland.

THEY: Native Finns.

Is it genuinely possible to bridge the gap between “we” and “they” in a tangible manner? While doing so, can we move forward together and contribute to this beautiful and innovative country collaboratively? Or do we want to succumb to the divisive and polarizing divide of “we” and “they”?

Foreigners come to Finland through various paths, including students, family ties, and refugees. Each group has their own unique experiences and perspectives about Finland, directly tied to their journey of immigrating here. Many find good positions initially, but it can take months, years, or even decades to secure something relevant to their field. Sadly, some give up sooner or later, falling into the vicious cycle referred to as “we” and “they”.

Within the “we” group, blame is often directed towards the “they” group, resulting in endless criticism and unproductive behaviour. While there may be some truth behind these sentiments, should we solely focus our energy on this one issue without attempting to find ways to overcome it? Is there a solution that can break this cycle?

On the other side, there is the “they” group, consisting of native Finns. Many of them work tirelessly in various sectors to support immigrants throughout their lives, dedicating themselves to helping international talents adapt to the Finnish system. However, there are other native Finns who hold the belief that immigrants and foreign individuals do not contribute to or benefit the Finnish community. They assert that Finns should be given priority in every job, and only when there are no native Finns available should employment be offered to someone of foreign origin.

The terms “we” and “they” are often used interchangeably when each group wants to shift blame onto others and hold them responsible for all the possible problems in Finland, Europe, or the world. This article primarily focuses on the availability of jobs and work in Finland, questioning who is taking whose jobs and whether “we” and “they” play reciprocal roles that impact the lives of each group.

Let’s examine the data. According to statistics from September 2022, there were 189,000 unemployed people in Finland, resulting in an overall unemployment rate of 6.7% (Statistics Finland 2022). The unemployment rate for immigrants, as reported by Teknikens Akademikerförbund (TEK) in July 2021, was 27.5%, with a total of 444,000 immigrants living in Finland permanently (TEK 2021). Additionally, due to the ageing population, in April 2021 the Finnish government announced its objective to increase work-based immigration by 50,000 people by 2030, followed by an additional 10,000 people thereafter (Valtioneuvosto 2021). These figures indicate that there is a need for 50,000 more workers by the end of the decade, while there are currently 189,000 unemployed people in Finland. The majority of these, approximately 27.5%, are from the immigrant community, although the overall unemployment rate hovers at approximately 7%. It is crucial to acknowledge that foreign-origin workers are primarily needed in specialized sectors such as healthcare and highly skilled professions. The current pool of unemployed individuals cannot fulfil the target of 50,000 workers. Conversely, hundreds of immigrants are unable to find employment in their desired field, despite having completed relevant degrees either in Finland or abroad.

Returning to the “we vs they” argument, the data partially support certain perspectives, although not all align with the assumptions of “we” and “they”. Native Finns who believe that their jobs are being taken by immigrants may notice the higher number of unemployed immigrants compared to the overall unemployment rate in Finland (27.5% vs 6.7%). However, these data do not fully corroborate the argument. This raises questions about the integration of immigrants in various fields in Finland, emphasizing the need to provide additional support for foreign-origin workers to effectively contribute to Finnish society.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that only a fraction of available foreign-origin workers can meet the demands of the healthcare sector, which is experiencing a significant workforce shortage. Some workers may not desire or possess the required skills for these positions, or they may have other professional aspirations. It is essential to focus on equipping them with the necessary skills and conducting thorough assessments before directing every immigrant towards nursing, cleaning, or the restaurant industry.

Foreign-origin workers should also discern and differentiate within the so-called “they” group. Not all native Finns fall under this category; many are willing to assist with integration and have aided hundreds of international workers in finding employment throughout their lives. Perhaps only a subset of native Finns can be labelled as part of the “they” category. The remaining individuals in this category can be influenced by those in the “we” category through their hard work, motivation, adaptability to society, and efforts to integrate.

It is also true that no organization or society functions flawlessly. If individuals in the “we” category reflect on their home countries, they will realize that not everything there was perfect either. If there is a “we/they” problem in Finland, it is possible that a similar issue exists in their home countries, manifesting as societal divisions such as the upper class versus the poor one, corruption leading to inequality, and various other forms of “we/they” situations. Nonetheless, we continue to strive for survival and contribute to society.

According to a well-known quote attributed to Adam Grant regarding the Wright brothers, the pioneers of plane and propeller technology:

“That’s the beauty of task conflict. In a great argument, our adversary is not a foil but a propeller. With twin propellers spinning in divergent directions, our thinking doesn’t get stuck on the ground; it takes flight.”

In Finland, could immigrants and natives serve as these twin propellers, each moving in their own distinct direction, and elevate Finland to the enchanting blue skies of progress together? Instead of becoming entangled in the divisive “we” and “they” rhetoric and remaining grounded, in 20 years, perhaps the only topic of discussion in Finland would be “us”.

Can we strive for the same spirit of collaboration in Finland? It is not an unreasonable request if both groups, “we” and “they”, commit to making an effort. By fostering a harmonious relationship between the public and private sectors, we can collectively work towards this goal.

(Please note that I anticipate receiving numerous arguments about the concept of “we” and “they” and its definition, often fuelled by bitter life experiences, from both immigrant and native groups in Finland. However, I believe it is important to remain open to these discussions if they serve the purpose of progress. I encourage all parties, including myself, to engage in these debates with an open mind. Nevertheless, if the intention behind a particular viewpoint is solely to assert dominance and win the argument, I want to make it clear from the outset that I consider myself already lost to you and will remain happy and satisfied!)

Afnan Zafar
Afnan Zafar is a researcher, innovator and coach working as head of development and Internationalisation in Finnish startup Gimara Ltd. Afnan's areas of expertise include innovative product and service development, sustainable production and career coaching. Afnan has worked in various international and Finnish company positions for over a decade, with working experience in five countries.

This is a "Viewpoint" opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of The Helsinki Times. This column is not fact checked and HT is not be responsible for any possible inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article.