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By Saila Huusko
15th November 2019
As you approach Puolanka, a small town in the middle of Finland, large yellow signs appear on the side of the road. On a grey afternoon, they look cheerful – until you see what’s written on them. “Are you lost? Next up: Puolanka,” warns one. “Soon, Puolanka. You’ve still got time to turn around,” cautions another.
“There are people who, on a daily basis, fantasise about knocking over those signs,” says Tommi Rajala, the 41-year-old deadpan executive director of the Puolanka Pessimist Association, the group behind the signage. Yet Puolanka has turned pessimism into a brand, hosting a pessimism festival, a musical, and even an online shop – all served with a wickedly humorous twist. Videos depicting Puolanka in all its pessimistic glory have hundreds of thousands of views online.
Puolanka has turned pessimism into a brand, hosting a pessimism festival, a musical and even an online shop
Mayor Harri Peltola says that when he tells other Finns where he comes from, everybody mentions pessimism. “A lot of people nowadays, upon hearing the word ‘pessimist’, think Puolanka,” Rajala confirms. So why did a remote and unassuming rural small town resort to adopting such a cheerless identity? And what has being the self-declared global centre of pessimism meant for Puolanka?
The most pessimistic town in the world
Puolanka’s gloomy new branding emerged amid a backdrop of demographic change and a resultant surge in unflattering national press.
Like many developed nations, Finland’s birth rate is falling and its population is ageing, its outlook bleaker than those of Nordic neighbours like Sweden. The most recent report from Statistics Finland predicts the population will start to decline by 2031, increasing concern over the impact on social welfare and healthcare systems.
The town has some 2,600 residents, more than 37% of whom are over the age of 64. Its population has fallen by half since the 1980s
Hardest hit are municipalities like Puolanka, a place Rajala describes as “the most remote municipality in Finland’s most remote province”. The town has some 2,600 residents, more than 37% of whom are over the age of 64. Its population has fallen by half since the 1980s, and bigger urban centres continue to lure young people away.
Timo Aro, an expert on demographics in Finland, says population change is creating winners and losers – and Puolanka is one of the losers. “If you look at the numbers in Puolanka, they are pretty grim in all possible ways, no matter how positively you interpret them,” he says.
This sign by the side of the road in neighbouring Oulu says, Next up Puolanka. You’ve still got time to turn around (Credit: Saila Huusko)
Rajala recalls a period in the early 2000s when, if Puolanka ever appeared in the media, it was always in a negative light. He says the pessimism movement emerged as a response to being constantly cited as the worst example of everything demographic-related. “Alright, we’re the worst, but we’ll be the best worst in Finland,” the thinking went.
On a weekday afternoon, Puolanka’s centre is quiet. A bus comes six times a week from Oulu, a larger town some 130km away. There are a couple of grocery stores, a pharmacy, a gas station where locals gather to chat and drink coffee, and one restaurant serving lunch. Most residents work in the service or agricultural sectors.
Jaakko Paavola, 63, who runs a bookshop next to the town hall, was involved when pessimism first took hold in the mid-2000s. A “pessimism evening” was launched to complement an otherwise dull slate of summer events. Instead of an entry fee, attendees had to pay an exit fee. “People came not only to see the programme, but to see each other,” Paavola reminisces. “In the true spirit of pessimism, they’d say to their neighbour: ‘I see you’re still alive.’”
One man said that nothing works out here – not even pessimism – Riitta Nykänen
Riitta Nykänen, 60, who was also involved from the start, recalls the organic way the first events came about. “One man said that nothing works out here – not even pessimism.” Yet what began as an idea among friends grew into a pessimist group that organised more events locally and even performed around Finland. Over the years Nykänen, who works as a nurse at the local elderly care facility, has taken on starring roles in the musical and online videos, and has been a member of a pessimist band called 'Trauma Group' that still occasionally performs upon request.
Members of the Puolanka Pessimist association meet in the town (Credit: Saila Huusko)
Matching with your mum
After nearly a decade of activity, the original group of pessimists called it quits in 2016, reportedly because of a decline in active membership. But soon after that Rajala, who grew up in Puolanka but spent nearly two decades away in cities and overseas, was hired by the municipality. His job was to develop online municipal services, but he was also tasked with maintaining and developing the pessimism brand to help market the town.
In the first video he made as part of his job, Rajala sarcastically takes the viewer on a tour of Puolanka. The video, full of dark humour, got 200,000 views when it was posted on social media, and a second video hit half a million. “Usually, advertising is all about making things seem better than they are,” says Rajala. “The absolute best thing about pessimism is that I don’t have to lie.”
Usually, advertising is all about making things seem better than they are. The absolute best thing about pessimism is that I don’t have to lie – Tommi Rajala
Rajala has since left his job with the municipality, but still works part-time leading the pessimist association, a registered not-for-profit mostly run by volunteers. It’s funded by income from the online shop and other occasional events, plus grants for individual projects like the summer musical from the municipality and the EU. And it’s still making videos.
One theme is the relatively small number of women; in general more women than men are leaving small municipalities and in Puolanka men make up about two-thirds of the 20-29 age group. Anti-hero and “master of cruising” Niko, played by 22-year-old Antti Ryynänen, stars in a series of videos where he scours the town for women. In one, he signs up for Tinder – only to ‘match’ with his mother. “It’s not very profound humour,” says Rajala, “but it began with this thought that the only woman to meet in Puolanka is your own mother.”
Tommi Rajala is the executive director of Puolanka Pessimists, a registered not-for-profit mostly run by volunteers (Credit: Saila Huusko)
Rajala believes that a new chapter is just beginning for pessimism in Puolanka. Social media has amplified the brand; the online shop receives a steady stream of orders for T-shirts with slogans like “grumpy old man” and “difficult hag”. The musical last summer attracted audience members from around the country and will likely be repeated this summer. A new communal space dedicated to pessimism will be available for visitors passing through the town centre on their way to Lapland.
As for the future, Rajala would like to see the pessimists on magazine covers. Yet, he says, there hasn’t really been a strategy so far. “We’ve just been doing the things that seem like fun to us.”
Don’t fight windmills
Timo Aro believes the cycle of decline in rural municipalities like Puolanka will continue. “Many places like Puolanka wait for that one big change,” he says; some talk about an “anti-urbanisation” movement that would see people shunning cities, but so far that isn’t happening. Yet Aro believes that Puolanka is playing the hand it’s been dealt quite well. “Even though every [demographic] measure places it at the bottom of the pile, there’s still a sense of turning the negative into a shared resource.”
Mayor Harri Peltola is more hopeful. He believes that Puolanka’s calm, natural environment will appeal to some. Indeed, the surrounding forests offer a bounty of berries and mushrooms, while Hepoköngäs, one of the country’s tallest waterfalls, is a stone’s throw away. There’s an abundance of snow and clean air. Even if people don’t live there permanently, many people have summer cabins in and around Puolanka; during holidays, the town’s population can almost double. The challenge is to make people aware of what it offers. “You have to have something that gets people interested – and I think pessimism has worked well for that,” he says.
While Rajala thinks that there is still a lot to be done with pessimism, that doesn’t stop him from seeing that the days of this small town are probably numbered. After all, a pessimist never gets disappointed. “If you live here and spend time dreaming about how Puolanka will get better, and how more people will come one day, you’re fighting windmills,” Rajala says. Those kinds of daydreams lead to frustration.
“But if you accept the facts as they are, and then use that reality to your ends, living and functioning here is entirely possible,” he says – sounding suspiciously like an optimist.