Monday, December 12, 2011

No, You
When we joined the Eurozone, I asked what Estonia's next great challenge was going to be. One suggestion was to join the Nordic Council, getting de-facto recognition of our status as a Nordic country (after which we would do absolutely everything in our power to make sure neither Latvia nor Lithuania could ever possibly join). But that was not significant enough; while it would be nice, it's simply not the kind of overarching goal and purpose that could unite the country in a singular pursuit.

These days I think a better challenge would be population growth. Twenty years ago, at the cusp of independence, Estonia's population was around 1.5 million; now it's 1.3 at a stretch. A lot of it is attributable to emigration in the 90s, in both easterly and westerly directions. Since that time successive governments have struggled with family-support legislation, tax breaks, baby benefits, etc. - and we've just about gotten to the point where the natural demographics are balanced, heading towards the positive: more babies will be born than people will die.

But following EU accession, global financial crisis, and the popping of the real-estate-fueled economic bubble, emigration is once again a big issue. A lot of capable and energetic talent is taking advantage of labor mobility laws, and going off abroad in search of fame, fortune, or just a good time.

Admittedly a lot of them will come back (and have). There is a sense of homeland that drives people back here, as evidenced both by the fairly high community of foreign expats married to Estonian women, and by my own experience during extended travels. I've almost literally been around the world, and while there are plenty of places where I could see myself spending a few years (Stockholm, Barcelona, NYC, Hong Kong, Singapore...), I know I'd always want to come back to Tartu.

The other issue is the difference between perception and reality. This is something I've also internalized while traveling: we might compare ourselves to countries with far greater GDP and income levels, but how different is the living standard, really? This summer, going across Europe by rail, I stopped overnight at a friend's house in southern Denmark. The guy is an IT professional, his wife is a specialist nurse. They live in a modest two-bedroom house, and their car is a ten-year-old diesel Ford Focus. Later on during that trip I ended up in Stuttgart, staying with a couple who had a really nice, large apartment; in their early-mid 30s, they didn't have children yet, and after traveling around the world themselves, they were very happy to meet other people by offering them a spare room via couchsurfing or airBnB. The guy was also an IT professional, this time for Mercedes (everyone in Stuttgart works for Mercedes, Porsche, or Bosch). He had a company car - but said that if he didn't, he wouldn't get a private one, because he and his wife didn't really need one and it is too expensive to run it in Germany. Months later, I was performing in Helsinki and talked to one of the biggest standup guys on that scene; he complained that while the average salary in Finland came out to something like 2700 euros (as opposed to 700 in Estonia), that really doesn't get you very far living in Helsinki. Indeed: a tuna sandwich in Rimi in downtown Tallinn or Tartu is 1.45. The same sandwich in Stockmann in Helsinki is over six euros. After Helsinki I went on my big trip for the year. In Northern California, I stayed with friends again - both professionals, established, in their 40s, childless for personal philosophic reasons. Their house is rented, and their one extravagance is a big powerful muscle car - a Dodge, far cheaper than an equivalent BMW that you'll see a lot of in Tallinn. Their previous car, the first one that either of them had purchased new, was a cheap basic Toyota. In Vancouver, I met up with a friend who drove a Neon, the Lada of North America.

All of these people are comfortably middle-class. The ones in Denmark are probably the closest to the median living standard for their country. The ones in California had the fanciest toy - but the biggest vulnerability to medical bills and, had they chosen to have children, the highest expenses for education.

So wherever you are in the Western world - of which Estonia is now firmly a part - you will end up with a roughly similar living standard for a given level of skill, ability and motivation. People who move out of Estonia hoping to significantly improve their circumstances through the sheer fact of living in a country with a higher GDP often find that this is not a magical solution. (People who intend to only work long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and happily spend the rest of their lives eating instant noodles, sitting in a subsidized apartment and watching reality television, deserve as little sympathy and consideration as the societies that fail to prevent it.)

I tested this idea recently when an acquaintance mentioned the dire state of the Estonian medical system. She is a doctor who recently finished her training and went off to work in provincial Finland. This is a common enough occurrence: the University of Tartu's medical school is valued highly enough by our northern neighbors that a lot of their young people actually come here to study - it's cheaper and the entrance competition is easier. The doctor in question was concerned about the future of Estonia's healthcare as a whole: by her reckoning, at least 80% of medical students were learning Finnish, and very nearly all of them intended to take their skills elsewhere after graduation. (Norway is another country with a seemingly endless demand for medical professionals, and also one where the apparent living standard is not as high as you'd expect.)

My question to my acquaintance was this: what would have to happen, in a practical sense, for her to have decided to stay in Estonia? Or to now decide to come back, in light of her experience working up near the Arctic Circle?

The answer was not a higher salary, or access to new equipment, or better working conditions, or challenging cases to stimulate the imagination, learn new techniques and advance a career. It wasn't any of the completely valid and understandable gripes that I expected to hear when I asked the question. The answer was the way that the established classes in her chosen profession treated newbies - with lack of respect, not considering that they might also be smart, capable, trustworthy people who had something of value to contribute. The answer was attitude.

For her, and for a lot of other people I've talked to, the reason for emigration is the inability to handle Estonians' uncaring treatment of their fellow human beings. We are a country with universal free healthcare, nearly universal free higher education, easy access to tools of entrepreneurship, low levels of bureaucracy, trusted law enforcement that keeps the crime rate tolerable, and once you see the world for yourself, an objectively reasonable living standard. Hell, even our weather has been improving.

Estonia's biggest turnoff is that we just aren't nice to each other.

If we are to take up the new national challenge and grow our numbers, we have to do more than just make babies. We have to keep people in the country - or, perhaps even better, we have to make sure that people who've gone out into the world bring their valuable skills and experiences back here. We have to make Estonia a better place to be.

We are the ones who have to do it. Me and you. The only way to make Estonia a place where people are nice to each other is to start right now - start being nice to those around you, and keep doing it. Until they start doing it too, or until they die out, or until they go to Finland or the UK or Canada.

We won't begrudge anyone leaving to find the society in which they want to live. Meanwhile, you and I can stay behind, and improve this one.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Here's a video of a lecture I gave to first-year IT students at the University of Tartu, on the job of a technical writer. It's in Estonian, and it's short; one of a technical writer's core virtues is to talk as little as possible while still getting your point across.


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