Birth rates are falling across the globe. Among other, reports of Finland’s baby bust have made headlines over the past years, when the fertility rate hit an ‘ultra-low’ of 1.35 children per woman (OSF 2020). The Finnish case has been used to ask questions about the recent demographic trend, such as “Why are birth rates plummeting across so many countries? (Stone 2019) and “Why has Finland’s fertility rate collapsed—and are there lessons for us?” (Bauer 2019). As very low fertility rates are becoming increasingly normal across the globe, the Nordic welfare state of Finland, renowned for its universalistic, nationwide welfare system (Kananen 2014), struggles with this particular demographic concern like many other countries (e.g. De Zordo et al. 2022; Maffi 2022; Mattalucci and De Zordo 2022).

Our article contributes to the research on demographic concern over fertility rates across different regions (e.g. Chaparro-Buitrago 2022; Maffi 2022; Mattalucci and De Zordo 2022; Sreenivas 2021). We explore the genealogy of population anxieties in the Finnish version of the Nordic welfare society. By this concept, we mean the historically persistent state of alarm and concern about the vitality of the population and of the nation state as its context of existence. We trace the historical shifts in concerns over the constitution of the population in the country’s population policy. The article, thus, reports an affective analysis of population anxieties as elaborated in population policy plans of action, programmes and reports. Our data consist of population policy materials produced mainly by the Family Federation of Finland (FFF) starting from the early years of the welfare state in mid-twentieth century, a period also marked by the foundation of the country’s population policy.

Throughout the analysis, we also investigate how the issue of the environment emerges and reconfigures in Finnish population policy discussion. The population question and policymaking around it have been repoliticised in the name of reducing humanity’s impact on nature and saving ‘ourselves’ from ecological catastrophe. Contemporary concern about the environment, most recently expressed around the climate crisis, has been accompanied by discussion of the role of human populations in environmental degradation and species loss (Dow and Lamoreaux 2020; Ojeda et al 2019). This article shows how the population–environment nexus in the Nordic welfare context is a historically shifting, contested one.

Theoretically, we draw from and develop the idea of affective biopolitics (e.g. Anderson 2012, 2016; Schuller 2018) in the article. We analyse population policy plans of action, programmes and reports by focusing on the affective work and affective stakes in discussions about the demographic trends and population futures identified through these trends. The theoretical framework is explained in detail in the next section. The perspective of affective biopolitics allows us to explore how the policy discussion of populations is essentially a discussion of futures. Following Strathern (1992), who maintains that reproduction is never merely the making of persons but always also the making of futures, we show that enacting populations always entails visions of futures and, further, that these are emotionally invested futures.

In unpacking the affective biopolitical strategies that generate and utilise population anxieties, this article advances two central arguments. First, it argues that the biopolitics of populations in the Nordic welfare mode is conducted affectively, through the invitation, enrolment and harnessing of an emotional orientation towards future uncertainties, at personal and societal-political levels. Over several decades, collective affects in the form of population anxieties have been generated and deployed to bring into focus concerns for national futures, especially economic futures. In Finland, population anxieties have revolved around reproductive behaviour and its material expression in declining fertility rates. While other demographic trends of migration and ageing are part of the complex of population anxieties, we show that they are subordinate to the prevailing historical tendency to link together reproduction and the vitality of the nation as a way of envisioning collective futures.

Second, this article proposes that there exists a biopolitical impasse where ecological and population futures in the affluent Nordic regime remain in a state of conflict with each other. The affective stakes tend towards persistent concerns about depopulation through ultra-low fertility. At the same time, however, there is evident tension and even resistance to connecting Finnish population policy concerns with concerns over climate change and other forms of environmental disruption. At a national policy level in this Nordic context, futures of human populations and living in environmentally dystopic times seem to have a different relationship than they do in the context of the Global South, where issues of ‘overpopulation’ and environmental degradation have since 1970s been explicitly coupled (Kristensen and Semba 2021; Murphy 2017; Sasser 2018; Schultz 2015).Footnote 1 The population–environment nexus, thus, remains underarticulated in Welfarist imaginaries of the future, despite climate crisis pressures. While in demographic modelling and policy work targeted at the so-called developing countries, demographic and ecological futures are perceived as mutually constitutive—through women’s reproductive behaviour in particular—this is not perceived as relevant to the Nordic population, regardless of it belonging to the affluent part of the world that is the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions.

The article is structured as follows: the next two sections explain our theoretical framework and materials and the method. The analytical sections are loosely chronological. The evolution of population anxieties and their possible connections to environmental concerns is traced through four stages, from early welfare state population policy, through end-of-century population concerns, to shifts in population thinking at the beginning of the new millennium and, finally, to present-day population anxieties existing alongside growing climate concerns. Based on this genealogical analysis of the biopolitics of populations, we conclude by summarising the findings and developing further our discussion of the population–environment nexus and the possibilities of responsible eco-social futures in the Nordic context.

Theoretical framework: feeling for population futures

In Inventive Methods, Hayden (2012) proposes a reconsideration of ‘population’ that moves away from the well-established Foucauldian idea of population as an aggregate of biological knowledge. While for Foucault (2007) population referred both to a biopolitical notion or idea and a vital reality affected and governed as a multiplicity of individuals, Hayden suggests using the term as a methodologically open device, with inbuilt heterogeneity. Our analysis takes inspiration from this inventive approach to the biopolitics of population. We aim to show how affective work is involved in the making of populations—and, importantly, in the feared or hoped-for futures of populations.

Foucault’s original idea of the population as an aggregate of vital processes such as reproduction and ageing remains nevertheless our starting point (Foucault 2008, 2007). Our understanding of population builds on Foucauldian investigations of the co-constitution of populations and subjects in biopolitical government (Ruppert 2007, 2011), that is, how people are governed as members of populations by knowing them statistically through rates, profiles, probabilities and patterns (Dillon and Lubo-Guerrero 2008) which then shape future political interventions (Desrosiéres 2001). Our article focuses on a demography-driven enactment of population. However, we aim to make a case about how the rationales and statistical logics of governing populations are intertwined with the enrolment of affect. This means displaying affective stakes as it comes to demographic trends and enrolling emotional responses concerning population futures.

We explore how population policy programmes invite emotion—population anxiety—in the specific context of the Finnish Nordic welfare state. In other words, we study the policy aimed to affect scientists, policymakers, public media and citizens, to press for the awareness of uncertain or unwanted futures if decisions and actions are not taken in the immediate future. In this sense, then, we study Finnish population policy as one type of affectively charged and operational ‘anticipation regime’, using Adams et al.’s (2009) term, that forecasts national futures, offering sometimes darker and sometimes more hopeful scenarios.

Our analysis also traces if and when demographic change and related biopolitical actions meet or overlap with emerging concerns about climate crisis. In line with the idea of history of the present and genealogical study born of present-day concerns (Foucault 1991; see also Burchell et al 1991), we investigate if and how anticipations of national futures in terms of population are developing in conjunction with concerns over ecological disruption. Thus, we are interested in the population–environment nexus in the evolution of population policy discussions in Finland, today an affluent welfare society of the Global North. Following this analysis, we propose that biopolitics is strategic in terms of futures, as some assumed developments are considered more pressing than others. Rose (2007, p. 54), among others, has underscored the strategic characteristics of biopolitics, which involve problematisation and debate on human vitality, morbidity and mortality and the kinds of societal actions and interventions that should be preferred. Following this premise, the methodological-theoretical setting of our article is the study of the logics of biopolitics in problematising demographic trends in the face of uncertain futures. However, we focus here on a particular dimension of strategic and future-oriented biopolitics, namely how it has historically come to rely on the enrolment of collective affect.

Affect is, Blackman (2015) describes, disclosed in atmospheres, fleeting fragments and traces, gut feelings, and bodily felt reactions and intensities. Moreover, as many scholars have shown (e.g. Ahmed 2004; Adams et al 2009; Hardt 1999; Oikkonen 2017; Vora 2015), affect is enacted in practices and modulated with technologies, making the enrolment of affect an elemental aspect of governance in global capitalism and technoscientific societies. Theorising current biopolitics, Anderson (2012, 2016) contends that producing collective affects have come to condition neoliberalist forms of governance. He maintains that specific affective atmospheres condition how the state is habitually encountered. Understanding ‘the affective life’ of neoliberalism is according to Anderson (2012) critical in explaining how present-day biopolitics emerges, forms and changes. Affective atmospheres, and producing and sustaining them become part of policies, often in an attempt to organise life in terms of the market. Then, they are taken up and reworked in lived experience. While Anderson has analysed the ‘state-phobia’ of neoliberal policies, our case study concerns a welfare state population policy that strategically mobilises ‘population anxiety’, a pervasive concern about peoples’ reproductive patterns materialised particularly in the fertility rate. We look at the affective appeals to adopt this anxiety.

Schuller’s (2018) recent work on the biopolitics of feeling homes in on the point that historically, the government of populations has been enacted through scientific discourses and practices of affect, or in Schuller’s terms sentimentalism. This sentimentalism included, in the nineteenth century US context, the idea that population members are (differently) impressible. Consequently, sentimentalism was operationalised as a mechanism of governance, aligning people with modes of orientation presented through policy. In Schuller’s words (2018, p. 19), biopolitics of feeling “relies on sentiment effectively creating atmospheres in which people come to identify with the needs of the state and capitalism as their own interests […] in the name of population security and biological optimization”.

By contrast, our analysis focuses on discussions of population and demographic issues in the advanced liberal era of governance (e.g. Rose 1993, 1999) in Northern Europe. In our view, it is interesting to study the ways in which the Finnish population policy—the Finnish biopolitics—evoke affect compared to Schuller’s historical analysis of a quite different societal and cultural context. Like Schuller, we trace how the government of populations is fundamentally enacted through—and dependent upon—affective dynamics and the generation of individualised sentimentalism towards the future of ‘our’ Nordic welfare state. The analytical framework we develop allows foregrounding the biopolitics of populations as being effective through the invitation, enrolment and harnessing of emotional orientation towards certain ‘collective’ futures, while also being disclosive of others. Population anxieties drawn upon and circulated in/by policy materials have focused particularly on the fertility rate but have more recently also rested on migration patterns and a general ageing of the population. The affective life of population policy, to paraphrase Anderson (2012), relies on people becoming affected by biopolitical anxieties whereby the collective future is anticipated, in our study case, as a potential state of crisis encompassing the economic way of life in the Nordic welfare society.

Population policy materials and analysis

Since the 1940s, the key authority generating and managing public discussion on population issues in Finland has been the non-governmental organisation the Family Federation of Finland (FFF). We have compiled a corpus of population policy materials generated by this organisation, consisting of yearbooks, plans of action, research reports, policy programmes and outlines covering the period 1941–2022 (N = 39). A significant part of the early FFF population policy material has been collated and discussed from another perspective (government of heredity through genetic counselling) by Meskus (2009, 2012).

Bringing together twenty national and professional organisations, the FFF was founded during the Second World War, in 1941, to address quantitative and qualitative issues of the Finnish nation—its vitality. Eighty years later, the organisation still exercises strong institutional judgemental and expert power in determining population and family policy issues and practices in Finland, operating under the agenda formulated in the 1940s. The original rules of the organisation defined its aim as the dissemination of information about the size of the population and its material and spiritual progress (FFF 1941).

From the outset, the FFF based its policy programmes on biopolitical data: on the living conditions and demographic trends of the population identified, for instance, by the Central Statistical Office and the Ministry of Social Affairs. However, the organisation also identified a need for demographic research dedicated to population issues more specifically, and in 1946 the FFF’s own department of research was reorganised into the Population Policy Research Institute. At this point, societal impact and policy work and demographic research gained their own institutional roles within the organisation (Hertzen 1948; Hulkko 1997). Since then, the FFF has produced both demographic research and primary population policy programmes. In its yearbooks, action plans and policy programmes, the organisation has relied on research conducted by its own research institute, while also inviting input from external researchers and other experts considered useful for discussing the population issues involved. The explicit target audiences of FFF’s materials have been policymakers, researchers and the media and, through them, Finnish citizens.

Our data analysis follows Foucault’s genealogical method that traces the historico-discursive production of knowledge and power relations. We view the policy documents as texts drawing a picture of the history of the present. However, while genealogy focuses on the discourses, it does not stop there. Foucault’s genealogies pose the question of which kinds of practices tied to which kinds of external conditions shape knowledge, meaning that texts need to be read within context (see e.g. Tamboukou 1999; Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982). Contextual reading is important for the analysis of affect, which we combine to the genealogical analysis described above. In the Nordic countries, the welfare state is historically invested with strong value and affection whereby the future of the welfare system and its possible demise due to demographic change is the source of much concern for policymakers. The policy documents we study manifest this, combining ‘factual’ and research-based argumentation with emotive argumentation.

We begin by analysing the early, openly pronatalist population policy data, which provide a genealogical grounding and policy framework legacy for deliberating current and future population issues (see Meskus 2005, 2009). Just as population was the one area where European social thought converged in the first half of the twentieth century (e.g. Osborne and Rose 2008), so too in Finland early population policy discussions are a starting point for the history of the present. The historical developments have shaped and conditioned how current population policy works and what its affective stakes are: enacting individualistic views on reproduction while simultaneously striving to have an effect on reproductive feelings and behaviour in the name of collective futures.

Population policy and the early welfare state

As an affective phenomenon, fear of population decline has a long history in Europe and North America. It dates to the nineteenth century, when scientific and political interest in the links between demographic trends and economic, social and political developments gained ground. While researchers have shown that anxiety about population decline has not been constant since then, it has nevertheless persisted, with population anxieties historically rooted in concerns about there being ‘too few’ rather than ‘too many’ in the Global North (Teitelbaum and Winter 1985). Ideas about the vitality of a national population drew on an organicist concept of the state. The Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, at the University of Uppsala, may have been one of the first to employ the notion of ‘biopolitics’, endorsing such an organicist concept. Kjellén conceptualised the state as a collective subject that ruled over its own body and spirit through the organic powers of politics, economics, culture and law (Lemke 2010). Just as in neighbouring Sweden, this brought the size and quality of the population into the limelight in Finland.

The demographic development understood as too-low birth rates moved more forcibly into political and policy discourse during the 1930s (Bergenheim and Klockar Linder 2020). Emerging statistical evidence of changes in national fertility gave rise to discussions among policymakers and researchers about how to intervene in this development and enable population growth. In a lecture given on 17 October, 1934, at the Finnish Economic Association, the senior actuary of the Central Statistical Office (today Statistics Finland) Gunnar Modeen predicted the future of population development in Finland. He had prepared the first national cohort-component forecast for Finland based on which he argued that the population growth would come to a halt within a few decades if no measures to intervene in the declining birth rate were taken (Alho 2000). Modeen had attempted to draw public attention to “the implications of a changing population age structure” already in several newspaper articles, but this lecture provoked widespread discussion on the population question in the media and various organisations (Lento 1946, pp. 66–73). As a single act of affective work, the lecture identified fertility decline as a national concern, a trend to worry about and act upon. Civic bodies, politicians and government officials began demanding political measures to support population growth (Jutikkala 1997).

Affective biopolitics manifested in a sense of urgency for the population and its quantity. The Second World War aggravated concern over population numbers in Finland. On the day of the Winter War peace agreement (13 March, 1940), in his radio address about the harsh peace conditions, Minister for Foreign Affairs Väinö Tanner said, “Our only failure was that there were too few of us” (FFF 1941, p. 2). This statement of regret implied a population problem and Tanner’s account became a central legitimating observation in the process of founding the FFF the same year (Hulkko 2006). The organisation’s first chair, sociologist and later eminent politician Sukselainen, stated:

Increasing social security, creating the best possible circumstances for people to raise their children and awakening people’s understanding of their civic duty to raise future generations is foundational population policy work…The aim [of population policy] is to guard the nation from falling into a premature grave (Sukselainen 1946, pp. 14, 18).

However, pronatalist policy-level anxieties over the future of the nation differentiated the population according to lives considered more and less valuable to national development. In formulating population policy guidelines for the country, the FFF supported the implementation of eugenics or racial hygienics as it was called in the Nordic context. In Finland, like in the other Nordic countries, racial hygienics was a largely supported public measure to ‘‘protect the future generations’’ from what were regarded as inferior hereditary traits (Meskus 2003, 2005; Hietala 1996). Sterilisation and abortion on racial hygienic grounds were legalised in 1935 and 1950 respectively. In the 1940s, the FFF campaigned for more effective racial hygienic measures on the basis that “we need to take care of the quality of the population” as Sukselainen (1946, p. 16) argued in his overview on the post-war population policy tasks. While racial and ethnic profiling to curb immigration were central to anglo-american eugenic practices (Kevles 1998; Robertson 2012), Nordic racial hygienic measures focused largely on managing the reproduction of women diagnosed as ‘feeble-minded’ or mentally ill. In other words, biopolitical anxieties became targeted at women as the bearers of the country’s future citizens. As previous research has shown (e.g. Bergenheim 2017, 2018; Hulkko 2006; Meskus 2003, 2005), giving birth was seen as a civic duty for women but only for those deemed worthy of reproduction.

Historical research on the Finnish population policy has given less attention to the connections made in population policy thinking between reproduction and nature. Our analysis of the affective stakes mediated in the population policy materials highlights that through the nascent population policy thinking, the reproductive potential of female citizens became increasingly connected to nature’s potential to yield economic growth. While fertility decline was a predicament shared by most European countries of the time, the pioneers of population policy noted that Finland encountered it later than many other countries and faced a sharper decline (Lento 1946). Following this logic of comparing countries in terms of national vitality, the FFF’s first programme stated:

A nation of four million is incapable of exploiting the country’s natural resources with sufficient efficiency and cannot develop its material culture to reach its greatest glory (FFF 1941, p. 18, emphasis in the original).

In this and later programmes published by the organisation, population decline was understood as linked to the natural environment and to natural resources that had to be employed in the international race for national survival. These documents identified future national prosperity as dependent on nature’s resources and yields for human needs, and their harnessing as dependent on increasing population numbers. “As yet unused natural resources” required not slowing the rate of fertility decline but, rather, a purposeful increase of national population, in the words of Sukselainen (1946, p. 8). Concrete family and social policy measures were paired with the deployment of affective work through influencing people’s orientation towards reproduction. For FFF, its task was to appeal to peoples’ emotions and senses: population policy education had to “reawaken the whole nation” to the urgency of committing to a collective fight against fertility decline and for the improvement of families’ situation. Thus, rebuilding the country’s economy directly depended on “population policy tasks”, with population policy education directed at “every citizen” (Nieminen 1946; Sukselainen 1946). In this regard, population policy education faced the challenge of. According to FFF’s CEO Heikki von Hertzen:

A normal person with healthy instincts loves and wants to have children. Hostility towards children and inordinate birth control are the result of depraved people and unhealthy societal conditions. (Hertzen 1948, p. 237).

Like their contemporary colleagues, Finnish population policy pioneers discussed Malthusianism as the theoretical ideal and model for population development. With its proposition of the tendency of populations to outrun the “conditions of living set by nature”, Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (2001[1789]) was presented in the first FFF yearbook as the necessary starting point for Finnish discussions of the population question. As Tellman (2013) notes, Malthus’s essay introduced a fundamental fear of boundless reproduction into socio-economic discourses by raising the spectre of overpopulation. Malthusianism, according to Tellman, engenders passions of hope and fear for different futurities, based on differentiating the dangerous ‘savage’ and economic ‘civilised’ life.

In the Finnish case, however, the affective biopolitics of populations was more centred on the issue of neo-Malthusianism, emerging through the promotion of birth control measures to counter poverty and human misery. For instance, the head of FFF’s population policy research institute (today the Population Research Institute), demographer Reino Lento lamented that neo-Malthusian ideas had begun to spread in Finland, particularly among the urban working classes, leading to pro-contraceptive views and decreasing family sizes. He maintained that because Finland was a scarcely populated country with vast natural resources, population increase was the only way to ensure economic growth (Lento 1946, 1951a). Hence, “increasing the number of productive persons” was, according to Lento (1951b, p. 80), key to “the major problem of the future”, that of maintaining the Finnish living standard as high as possible. To sum up then, population anxieties of the early welfare society were grounded on the coupling of fertility and economic growth. The vitality of the young nation depended on more citizens of worthy ‘quality’. They were needed to generate economic prosperity and wellbeing. Thereby, the affective biopolitics of the nascent Finnish population policy were founded on an existential concern: the fear of surviving as a nation. In the following sections, we trace this concern further.

Persisting population anxieties

The 1960s and 1970s marked a turning point for the emphatically pronatalist biopolitical framework in the Nordic welfare context. A biopolitical understanding where citizens procreated from choice rather than obligation to the nation prevailed in welfare society thinking, including population policy work (Nätkin 2006; Sulkunen 2009). Thus, more emphasis was laid on individual and family preferences in childbearing and family making. To support this shift in population thinking, the FFF’s areas of work also included family policy, public health work, housing policy, genetic counselling and research, home service policy and the Population Research Institute (e.g. FFF 1973).

Simultaneously, the 1970s saw increasing awareness of and interest in environmental questions and a growing ecological movement in Euro-American countries. In terms of the biopolitics of populations effective during the latter part of the twentieth century, two well-known and influential volumes were published. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1969) was a key stimulus to reconfiguring population priorities globally. Arguing that much of the suffering in the world could be explained by “overpopulation”, Ehrlich prophesied that “present affluent societies” would crash within decades, and hundreds of millions of people in what were called ‘undeveloped’ countries would starve to death, unless “determined and successful efforts at population control” were instigated. Generative of a collective sense of urgency and biopolitical to its core, Ehrlich’s demographic argumentation was constructed around population control in the global South and reducing overconsumption of resources in affluent global North in the name of “reversing the deterioration of our environment”. Further, the population issue was introduced as necessarily “a numbers game” (Ehrlich 1969, pp. 5–6, 13).

Some years later, The Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome aimed to account for “the interdependent components—economic, political, natural and social—of the global system” (Meadows et al 1972, p. 9). Responding to a collective sentiment termed “the predicament of mankind”, this future-oriented volume linked the assumed environmental and demographic limits to economic growth and, based on those calculations, demanded political intervention to halt the destruction of the natural conditions of life on earth.

Several studies of neo-Malthusian discussions and projects in the final decades of the twentieth century have shown that the rise of environmental awareness coincided globally with the growing strength of transnational family planning and population control projects. Family planning projects invested with Western economic and political strategies aimed to curtail rapid population growth in developing countries, while at the same time a paternalising population ‘control’ was increasingly problematised and questioned in the Global North. Sasser (2018) has shown how, in crisis atmospheres, population numbers become particularly appealing. Mechanical mathematical models tend to create an illusion that the consequences of population growth for environmental destruction are calculable in a straightforward manner (Koivusalo 1994). However, there was and still is no single evidence-based model for calculating or predicting the environmental impact of human numbers alone (Murphy 2018).

How, then, did international demographic discussions about ‘too many people’ and nascent fears of ‘a dying planet’ figure in Finnish population policy? Briefly, population concerns continued to focus on fertility rate, albeit for the brief period after World War II when the decline in fertility rate was arrested with the so-called post-war baby boomer generation. In 1947, the overall fertility rate reached 3.5. but after this the rate started to decline again. In 1973, the fertility rate stood at 1.5. It then went up somewhat, remaining almost unchanged until the first decade of the new millennium (Statistics Finland 2007). Finland was not alone with these demographic developments. Across Europe, countries experienced a new phase of population decline, with birth rates turning downward between 1965 and 1975 to such an extent that it gave rise to a new demographic phrase, the “baby bust” (Brown 2019; Teitelbaum and Winter 1985).

In the 1970s, the FFF regarded fertility decline as a major concern in population policy work. In its Plan of Action from 1973, the organisation stated the following:

It is evident that widespread negative attitudes towards children are one reason for the excessive decline in natality. Thus, during 1973-74, the working committee set up by the directorate of the Federation is planning and executing the ‘Children, of course!’ campaign. [This campaign] aims to show the benefits of family planning and enable families to aspire for a suitable number of children (FFF 1973).

Paraphrasing Schuller (2018) on the biopolitics of feeling, the FFF’s campaign aimed to create atmospheres in which people could and did want to procreate, for the sake of the welfare state. Thus again, biopolitical action was coupled with affective work: population policy was directed towards guiding and shaping peoples’ sentiments on their reproductive futures.

While the early 1970s population policy programmes considered that, globally, overpopulation presented “the second greatest threat to humanity after nuclear war”, the organisation was at pains to argue that there was no inherent contradiction in simultaneously striving to raise the birth rate in Finland (Ollila 1994a). Population policy action was conducted in the name of “governed social development”, which was seen to be grappling with a “too strong decline” in the fertility rate (FFF 1974). It must be noted, though, that not all FFF researchers shared this view unequivocally. In a paper on family planning and the status of women in Finland, written at the request of the Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN, Visuri (1969) concluded that “in a world where population expansion is a growing threat, and out of solidarity for other nations”, a moderate-sized family “should be the primary concern, not hopes for population growth”.

The population policy materials from this era show that environmental concerns remained distanced from what was regarded core population issues in the Finnish welfare society. In the later twentieth century, declining total fertility rate remained the key concern in viewing the population and problematising its reproductive patterns. Demographic arguments, based on numbers, were the explanatory narratives that made certain forms of action seem self-evident (Widmer 2013). In terms of an interest in the genealogy of the population–environment nexus as a historical aspect of Northern population concerns, it must be concluded that environmental concerns did not enter visibly the affective biopolitics of populations in Finland, despite the rise of global environmental thinking towards the end of the twentieth century. The combination of environmental issues with population anxieties would, however, develop slowly at the turn of the millennium in terms of anticipating national welfare futures, as would the other demographic trends of ageing and migration. As a result, the affective stakes of biopolitics of population also gradually diversified.

New millennium, shifting concerns

In its fiftieth anniversary commemoration book, the FFF reviewed its functions and achievements since its foundation. Key actors in its population, family and public health policy work reported how the FFF had championed advancement of the wellbeing of Finnish families on many fronts, adhering to its mission to impact population growth and improve living conditions. Then CEO Jouko Hulkko contributed the final chapter, “The human and the natural environment”, which turned a critical eye on how “the human species has reproduced to such an extent and acquired such a way of life that it has become a danger towards its own species and its own living environment” (Hulkko 1991, p. 262). Hulkko listed threats including the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion and the increasing exploitation and destruction of natural resources, in order to underscore the supranational and boundary-crossing impacts of pollution and the increasing interdependency of national environments, economies and social wellbeing. He wrote:

Population numbers add to the burden on nature. Population and environmental problems should not be addressed as separate, although the way humans put a strain on and exploit nature differs greatly across the world (Hulkko 1991, p. 264).

Hulkko’s chapter rehearses how population policy advocates have perceived and rationalised old fears of unwanted population change in the affluent Nordic countries, while cautiously turning their attention to emergent concerns about environmental change. Hulkko found politicians in market economies culpable of short-sighted policymaking and an overemphasis on economic growth and profit seeking. They overlooked the fact that “a balanced population development and clean nature are basic requirements for human wellbeing”. What, then, was Finland’s specific part in the complex relationship between population and environmental change? He concluded:

The declining number of Finns does not help the global population problem. However, it has an indisputable effect on the Finnish culture and the well-being of our people (Hulkko 1991, p. 271).

Hulkko thus reaffirmed the longstanding rationale in Finnish affective biopolitics of population—the key population concern—which was the fear that there are ‘too few of us’. In regards to solving what he called the population problem of the world, Hulkko proposed increasing development aid to population policy work through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN programmes. The FFF CEO concluded that Finland should put more effort into distributing knowledge and expertise on family planning, birth control and related policy work, spearheaded by the FFF, in “developing countries” (Hulkko 1991, pp. 271–275). Ultimately this Finnish population policy leader envisioned differentiated futures between the Global North and South. Echoing discussions of overpopulation by demographers, environmental scientists and economists since the 1970s, the population–environment nexus was seen to require political action in the impoverished South. Meanwhile, population anxieties in the welfare state of Finland continued to focus on fertility decline.

The new millennium saw several governmental and ministerial committee reports published on anticipated family, population, migration, and public health developments (listed in Miettinen et al 1998). This raised enthusiasm towards population questions. According to key Finnish demographers,

[T]he global issues in the areas of population and environment have gained greater visibility also in Finland, following the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 (Miettinen et al 1998, p. 7).

The Finnish take on mounting interest in population issues centred on how to ensure what was considered beneficial population development, taking into account a new source of population anxiety emerging alongside that of a too-low birth rate, “greying Finland” (Miettinen et al 1998, p. 88). Following the ageing population and the declining birth rate, Finnish demographers asked: “can the welfare state endure the population challenge?” (Söderling 1997, p. 43).

In 1998, the FFF-hosted Population Policy Research Institute published a forward-looking report, The Population of Finland in 2031How, from where and how many? Bringing together prominent demographers from across the country, the report aimed to outline “the population future of Finland one generation on” (Miettinen et al 1998, p. 3). In the preface, the research institute’s director Ismo Söderling noted two issues that are relevant to our discussion on the affective biopolitics of populations. Söderling maintained that population issues and forecasts tend to receive wide publicity and are “the source of interest and debate”. He thus acknowledged the ‘affective life’ (cf. Anderson 2012) of population issues in society. Söderling also saw that forecasting arises from a basic human need to structure the future, while he noted that population projections tend to fail in the long run. The role of such projections, then, was to generate and uphold public and policy discussion on “upcoming population challenges” (Miettinen et al 1998, p. 3).

As Andersson (2018) has shown, modelling futures with the help of scenario building became increasingly prevalent in sciences and policies working with anticipating futures in the latter part of the twentieth century. The development of computer-led simulation and modelling enabled rendering intangible and uncertain futures in more empirical and observable shape. Also Finnish population policy started to rely on the construction and elaboration of future scenarios based on statistical modelling, and the formulation of population prognoses (Jutikkala 1997). Demographic reports and population policy programmes increasingly provided scenarios that comprised alternative estimates of population change, constructed on a continuum of least favourable to favourable rates of fertility, ageing and migration (Ollila 1994a).

The FFF’s 2004 population policy programme Finland of Ageing Finns 2040 and Finland of Balanced Population 2040, for instance, introduced two scenarios. Scenario A envisioned a Finnish society with a fertility rate of 1.5 (down from the then rate of 1.73) and low work-related migration. In this scenario,

[T]he significance and role of the aging population will grow both politically and economically. The nation does not take [political and economic] actions actively to support children or families with children or youth, and immigration is viewed negatively (FFF 2004, p. 44).

In this “Senior Finland”, as it is called, there is a polarised health and social care system and “citizens need to take on greater responsibility for the care of the elderly in their families which will increase problems with work-family balance”, referring implicitly to the gendered challenges of work–life balance. Furthermore,

Economic growth and the productivity of waged labour is decreasing. If there is not enough labour force to replace the people leaving the working life, that will be a stimulus for jobs and industries to move abroad to places where cheap labour force is available (the China Phenomenon) (FFF 2004, p. 45).

The programme invited negative affective orientation towards such a scenario. After all, who would want to live in this “Senior Finland” that struggles to take care of its old and has lost its universal inclusiveness and the so-called “women-friendly face” (referring to the state ensuring gender equality in working and family life through benefits and services) (Anttonen 1994)?

The FFF programme affectively sided with Scenario B, which, unlike A, explicitly aimed to balance demographic change and maintain the welfare society. In this scenario, the Nordic welfare system is ideally saved through childcare, family and elderly services and benefits, and attracting a workforce via migration. “A balanced population” implies that

a decision has been made to actively influence the population change so that the economic and social challenges brought about by the aging population will be solved. The number of people and the population age structure change in a stable enough fashion to sustain the welfare society in the future (FFF 2004, p. 46).

The goal of this policy programme was to make Finland “competitive” and “desirable” enough to attract immigrants and prevent emigration so that the ratio between productivity of work and old-age dependency could reach more desirable levels for the national economy. Work-related migration was prioritised, with an emphasis on the value of high-skilled migration (especially FFF 2004), although the FFF acknowledged that “migrants should not be perceived merely as a workforce instrumental for the benefit of the economy” (FFF 2020, p. 22).

The policy documents keep silent about race. This is not surprising given the strong social equality discourse and simultaneous affective distancing, or uneasiness, around race and racial issues in Finland. Race and racism are either not acknowledged, sidelined or they are assigned to particular populist political party supporters rather than institutional structures (Blell and Homanen 2023; Sudenkaarne and Blell 2022; Puuronen 2011). However, while racial discrimination no longer exists as explicit racist reference or eugenic agenda in law or policy, racism and other, intersectional, discrimination continue appearing in institutional practices and logics (Benjamin 2019). M’charek et al. (2014) call this an absent presence of race and racism.

In the case of the population policy documents, one can assume that highly skilled and/or work-related migration refer to (mostly) white Europeans with higher education and Eastern European lower-skilled workers coming to work in construction, cleaning and such like jobs often travelling between their home country and Finland and with a migration status with not full social rights (Alastalo and Homanen 2015, 2018). Refugees and asylum seekers coming in the Finnish case mainly from North Africa and the Middle East face most racism in Finland and are by definition not viewed as work-related migrants (e.g. Keskinen 2019). Migrant anxiety—which is a form of affective biopolitics—then, is by no means silent in Finland, and does draw on ideas about the quality of population that is seen as tarnished by “low quality” migrants. Like in many places around the world, a decrease in fertility rates have been used by right-wing politicians to fuel anti-immigrant and other xenophobic sentiments (e.g. Zordo et al. 2022; Mattalucci and De Zordo 2022).

The hoped-for increases in birth rates are approached as a task to appeal to peoples’ experiences and feelings about reproduction, alongside advocating for publicly provided benefits, family and fertility services and tax reductions for families, by “changing anti-family values” and campaigning on fertility awareness (FFF 2004, 2020; Rotkirch 2021a). The practical details of such affective biopolitics of populations are nevertheless left vague: that is, the “how” to change the (perceived) negative views on having children. The dilemma of conducting population policy programmes in individualised societies is manifest in statements like “having children is couples’ and individuals’ own choice […] not a responsibility” (FFF 2004, p. 8); “the rewarding sides of parenthood should be better brought up in the public debates on the subject matter” (FFF 2004, p. 31); and “family-friendliness is everybody’s business” (FFF 2020, p. 20). The state no longer has the mandate to determine the “good life” for its citizens (where one has a baby for the state) but needs to approach in a more subtle manipulative way. This involves appealing to people's feelings and motivations regarding what is good for their own individual (family) lives and values.

These affective appeals arise from a decade of fertility decline. The total fertility rate reached 1.35 in Finland in 2019. Projecting from the current position, Finland’s total population is predicted to begin shrinking in 2031 (OSF 2019). Among EU Member States, Finland is projected to have the second highest old-age dependency ratio, 62%, by 2100 (Eurostat 2020). These figures, and their representation and circulation through tables and graphs in public discourse, feed into what Oikkonen (2017) has termed ‘the affective rhetoric of numbers’, referring to the way numbers presented in public health issues may reinforce the sense of unstoppable movement. The perceived indisputability of a numerically shown trend emerges as a force capable of moving emotions such as fear and anxiety. Numbers also engender and shape anxiety (Oikkonen 2017).

A heightened sentiment of population anxiety has followed the publication of Statistics Finland’s population projections and the envisioned population structure. Influential sections of the Finnish media have called for a national awareness of a regional “population tsunami” because of the ageing population (YLE 2021). Warnings have been voiced about the need to prepare for “depopulation” and “the collapse of the welfare state” (e.g. Helsingin Sanomat 2021a, 2021b), which as mentioned earlier is very much an emotionally charged issue in Finland.

To sum up, the affective biopolitics of populations has gained nuance and scope, while declining birth rates have remained at the heart of population anxieties. Furthermore, as the next section illustrates, the most recent population policy programmes attempt in some manner to respond to and act upon the burgeoning evidence of climate crisis and environmental destruction and the ensuing public discussion on global responsibilities. This accommodation of the population–environment nexus includes the affective work of connecting and distancing population issues from climate change concerns.

Population anxieties in the face of climate crisis

The FFF has been at the forefront of producing studies on the future welfare society demographic predicaments and, for example, young peoples’ visions about their future (e.g. Rotkirch et al 2017). The organisation published a new population policy programme in 2020 (FFF 2020) and a population policy report was commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Office (Rotkirch 2021a). This latter report, Recovery of the birth rate and longer life expectancypopulation policy guidelines for the 2020s, expressed the encouraging yet individualistic spirit of affective management of fertility with the slogan the organisation had used in the 1970s: Children, of course! The report summary (Rotkirch 2021b, p. 3, 2021c, p. 3) presents the idea of “pronatalism that supports peoples’ own wishes” (although the English translation talks of “baby-, child and family-friendliness” rather than pronatalism).

When it comes to reproduction, there is currently a two-tier population policy. The FFF’s 2019 annual strategy says:

In the home country population policy is aimed at supporting family formation and having children. In the developing countries it joins with other funders in supporting family planning and restricting the number of children (FFF Annual Strategy 2019).

Finnish population policy has an established history of targeting women’s reproductive patterns in the Global South through FFF family planning programmes, conducted since the late 1960s within the population aid component of Finnish development cooperation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1972; Ollila 1994b). The population policy programmes of the new millennium declared the organisation’s commitment to promote people’s sexual and reproductive rights, as determined within the UN context (FFF 2004, 2020, 2022). Simultaneously, the supranational commitment to family planning programmes in the ‘developing world’ diverge from population policy aims in Finland (FFF 2004, 2018, 2020). In effect, in the two-tier policy racialised women who are the main target of these programmes are strategically perceived as in need to have less children.

The issue of the population–environment nexus seems to be more pressing than ever before for the openly pronatalist mission of current population policy, increasingly described as a sustainable population policy (Rotkirch 2021a; 2021b; FFF 2018, 2020). The FFF announces its advocacy of a population policy that “aims for the wellbeing of the nation, ecological sustainability and global responsibility” (FFF 2020, p. 13). However, as we illustrate below, the national population, the environment and other parts of the world relate to each other through an ambiguous bundle of affective assumptions and policy preferences.

The population–environment nexus is, therefore, complicated. For the most part, the relationship between demographic change and environmental sustainability is addressed indirectly. Currently, population is reframed as a matter of justice, rights and women’s empowerment. Sexual and reproductive rights are seen as

the cornerstone of preferred population change: women’s education and supporting families to have as many children as they want are among the most effective ways to slow down the global increase of population numbers (FFF 2020, p. 16).

In countries with low fertility rates, like Finland, this would mean a slight increase in fertility (Rotkirch 2021a, p. 42).

As noted by Sasser (2018) in her work on international development actors, women’s empowerment is used to make the assumptive and custodial claim that women in the South, given the intellectual capital, want less children. Meanwhile the FFF programme invokes the idea that in Finland women should be empowered to have the children they supposedly truly want. The FFF demands the government of Finland take responsibility for active population development in terms of fertility, ageing and migration, yet this policy should also “take into account ecological sustainability” (FFF 2018, p. 8, emphasis in the original). It is stated that ensuring sexual and reproductive rights will help achieve ecological sustainability (Rotkirch 2021a, pp. 39–42).

In terms of climate change specifically, the natality of Finns is perceived as insignificant. The main responsibility for acting on climate change is placed on international agencies. This view, as we have seen, has been continued for decades in population policy. The population policy report for the Prime Minister’s Office states that

fighting the climate crisis requires swift international action in the 2020s and 2030s. Since realistic scenarios predict that global population growth will continue until the 2070s, realising different fertility rates cannot play a major part in accomplishing emission targets [- -] the widespread meme that having a baby would be one of the worst ecological deeds also requires contradiction in Finland (Rotkirch 2021a, p. 163).

Here then, fertility is decoupled from attaining emission targets and, thus, the affective imaginaries of melting glaciers and rising sea levels familiar to many. This is the affective work it does. By doing so, the quotation reinstates the emphasis that reproduction is not an issue of ecological relevance in Finland. This view is seen elsewhere, as in the statement that babies as an ecological crime should be criticized. It is further stated that “the climate crises shall be tackled within the framework of the welfare economy and social justice, in a democratic fashion without deepening social inequity” (FFF 2020, p. 16).

Again, biopolitical activity in the form of population policy enrols and deploys selected affective strategies. It generates and takes positions on particular collective sentiments and emergent emotional atmospheres, in the process sidelining or downplaying some affective atmospheres while supporting others. In this case, through decoupling them, the future of fertility in the Nordic welfare state wins the day at the expense of the collective worry over the environment.

A final point about current population anxieties and related policy outlines regarding the population–environment nexus is that concern for the welfare state economy is the pervasive undercurrent justifying population policy thinking. This is consistent throughout the genealogy of Finnish population policy since its inception: in Finland, population and national economy are inextricably linked in terms of how futures are envisioned. This remains the case in the latest policy documents.

The Finnish “welfare economy” referred to in the policy programmes (FFF 2004, 2020) is growth-based and tied to global markets and finance systems to help maintain ‘our’ standard of living. Population anxieties are being reconfigured particularly in terms of the pension system (Tikanmäki and Seuri 2020). The aspirational logic linking fertility rate and the future of the economy is seen here, for example:

Declining fertility may cause an imbalance between public-sector finance income and expenses. If fertility rates stay low, the public-sector fiscal sustainability gap may grow almost by one percent. The effect of this would be particularly strong on our pension system. […] The challenge for the pension system caused by the decade of population change in the 2010s would be largely solved if the fertility rate would rise back to what it was at the beginning of the century, about 1.8-1.9. Even though no one makes children for the sake of the gross domestic product, in FFF’s view the significant input of child-rearing people into the public economy should be emphasised (FFF 2020, p. 17).

Current population policy scenarios that juggle rates of fertility, migration and ageing, can be boiled down to concerns about maintaining the pension system in the face of declining fertility and an ageing population. Very few alternative views have been offered for making sense of the current population–environment–economy nexus. In terms of the affective biopolitics of welfare state futures, this results in the above-described focus on relations between the population and the economy. How the environment fits into the picture in the domestic context remains underarticulated.

As an exception from the main trends of thought, one environmental economist contributing to the 2020 population policy programme campaigned for lower living standards and a different organisation of economy and wealth. Heikkurinen (2020, p. 215) asserted that in sustainability discussions, ecological and social justice are juxtaposed: “ecology is made subordinate to social sustainability, instead of viewing social sustainability as subordinate to ecological sustainability”. He maintained that if ecological sustainability is to be taken seriously, “material living standards have to decline considerably in Finland as well as globally”. While acknowledging some historical dangers of population control, Heikkurinen insisted that “the population question cannot be excluded from the public debate”.

In advocating an urgent need to explore openly how fertility decline might improve the conditions for biodiversity, this contribution to the current affective biopolitics of populations problematised the long historical line of thinking in Finnish population policy—in FFF’s own policy programme. In response, the FFF seems to have taken a stand against this particular expert opinion. The programme repeatedly argues for reproductive rights and the benefits of rising (Finnish) fertility rates. In line with the organisation’s current understanding, it maintains that ecological sustainability must be tackled within the framework of social and economic sustainability: “Ecological sustainability is worth building only if we can hold on to social and economic justice” (FFF 2021, p. 16).

Grove (2010) has shown that in climate policy discussions, invocations of environmental dangers are biopolitically invested in securing the continuation of Western ways of life, and in opposition to various insecurities that developing countries particularly are seen as creating. Similarly, population policy discourses in the affluent North are invested in securing Western standards of living and the growth-based economic development of the welfare state, alongside what is understood as reproductive justice. In this affective work, raising children continues to be seen as an important contribution to the national economy. Meanwhile, disengagement from the idea of continuous economic growth seems outside the scope of envisioned or aspired population futures. Although some are attempting new ways of thinking about the population and its connections with the economy and the environment, as indicated above, the affective biopolitics of population continues to focus on a ‘recovered’ total fertility rate and work-based migration as the key paths forward.


The genealogy of the Finnish population policy presented here shows that population anxieties have shifted from a focus on population quantity and quality, with a state-mandated pronatalism enmeshed with racial hygienics during the decades of welfare state building, to a more individualistic and encompassing demographic work where the numbers that ‘matter’ for population dynamics include numbers of births, pensioners, and migrants. Tracing the affective biopolitics of populations in the case of a Nordic welfare state, we have underscored that population policy is based on exerting a ‘feeling for’ the future welfare state. This state is constantly threatened by a falling fertility rate and the other significant (or perceived as such) demographic changes, ageing and migration.

Present population anxieties are rooted in and arise from historical affective and political stakes built into the government of populations. How population anxieties have been defined and ordered by population policy advocates has shaped imaginaries about the Finnish welfare state futures. Contributing to historical analyses of the biopolitics of feeling (Schuller 2018) and the affective life of biopolitics (Anderson 2012) as the central dynamics governing the life of populations, our aim has been to show that population policy work in the Global North has increasingly come to rely on people becoming affected by population anxieties. People are invited to anticipate the collective future as a source of demographic, economic and—more ambivalently—ecological crisis. In particular, affective work has centred around alarmingly low fertility rates, that is, too few people having too few children. Fertility decline related population anxieties have persisted across the decades since the launching of population policy in Finland in the 1940s.

In tracing the population anxieties of the Finnish population policy, we have attempted to discern the relations constructed in policy documents between population issues and environmental issues. The analysis suggests that Nordic affective biopolitics, or sentimental governance through affect, has addressed the issue of ecological futures in a tentative, ambiguous manner. Population policy programmes elude specifying relations between what is understood as a sustainable population policy on the one hand and ecological sustainability on the other hand. A key finding of this analysis is the historically persistent tendency that ‘our own’ population is not regarded as a meaningful variable in environmental degradation. The population–environment nexus remains underarticulated in welfarist imaginaries of the future, despite climate crisis pressures. While in demographic modelling and policy work targeted at the so-called developing countries, demographic and ecological futures are perceived as mutually constitutive—through women’s reproductive behaviour in particular—this is not perceived as relevant to the Nordic population, regardless of it belonging to the affluent part of the world that is the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions (cf. Sasser 2018).

Reducing human numbers far from home has been perceived as politically attractive, because it does not require the rearrangement of orders of accumulation that have accrued in places with low fertility rates, such as North America, Europe, and East Asia (Murphy 2017). It is politically easier to point to the high birth rates of more deprived countries than to look for connections with domestic standards of living, industrial and economic activity, and natality. In Fredric Jameson’s (2003) phrase, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Given the historically persistent emphasis on growth in demographic-economic thinking of the Global North, envisioning population futures in relation to ecological sustainability is challenging. Rather than disengaging from the ideals of demographic and economic affluence or growth, and hence a focus on ‘recovering’ the fertility rate, Finnish population policy keeps envisioning population futures within a well-established framework.

Nevertheless, the adjustment of population anxieties to affective atmospheres of climate crisis and sentiments towards valuable life in the future is at the heart of present population policy work. This policy-level challenge extends beyond the field and mandate of population policy. In terms of studies of biopolitical histories, presents and futures, paying continued attention to the affective life of the population issue might open up alternatives to forms of biopower (cf. Anderson 2012). Alternative biosocial imaginations are currently being sought and developed around climate change (Lee and Motzkau 2013). Population policy also awaits a rethink in response to ongoing changes in a population–environment nexus that, as we have seen in the case of Finland, is fundamentally enacted through economic rationales.

Such rethinking would ultimately also require reconsidering the affective stakes in biopolitics of populations. What might population policy-related affective assumptions about the ‘good life’ look like in the upcoming decades? What is the Nordic welfare model primarily supposed to provide for, and what does it mean to be a citizen of the Nordic welfare state under conditions of growing climate crisis awareness and environmental degradation? Studying the selective logics of problematising demographic trends in the face of uncertain futures helps critically unpack those futures presented as obvious or necessary. Through analysis like that presented here, it may become possible for social scientists to contribute to envisioning other versions of demographic, socio-economic and ecological development. This might require an arduous disengagement from the idea of continuous economic growth. It might also require a turn towards a thus far speculative type of welfare society with continuously low fertility rate combined with lowered living standards. This would entail affective and practical orientation beyond the scenarios built on simple causal structures of certain demographic trends and the anthropocentric focus of welfare state models.