An open society

A diversity of lifestyles in a modern society with increasing individual freedoms.
by Rainer Geißler

German society is a modern, open-minded society: Most people are well-educated and enjoy a high standard of living, as well as sufficient freedom to be able to plan their lives as they themselves see fit. Nonetheless, like in other major industrial nations, German society is facing the challenge of solving problems of demographic trends, in particular the aging of society. Nor, 20 years after reunification, have the social consequences of the division of Germany been fully overcome. In the course of globalization Germany has taken a path that has made it a modern immigrant society with increasingly ethnic cultural diversity, and has increased its efforts to integrate the migrants in the nucleus of society. The socio-economic change over the past few years – accelerated through the consequences of the worldwide economic and financial crisis – has led to the emergence of new social risk situations and to greater diversification in society in terms of economic living conditions looming. The Federal Government report on poverty and wealth states that one in four Germans counts as poor or has to be protected from poverty through state subsidies. The EU defines those households as “poor” that have less than 60 percent of median income at their disposal. At the moment that is around 780 euros for people living on their own.

Demographic trends

Three trends are characteristic of demographic developments in Germany: a low birth rate, increasing life expectancy and an aging society. For more than 30 years now Germany has been witnessing few births: With slight fluctuations, since 1975 the number of newborn infants has been approximately 1.3 children per woman. This means that for 35 years the generation of children has been smaller than that of their parents. High rates of immigration to Germany prevented the overall population from shrinking accordingly. At the same time, as in other wealthy nations, life expectancy has risen continuously, and is now 77 years for men and 82 years for women.

The rise in life expectancy and, to an even greater extent, the low birth rates are the reason for the third trend: The ratio of young people in the overall population is decreasing, that of elderly people rising: In the early 1990s there were almost three people of an employable age for every person over the age of 60. In the early 21st century, the ratio was only 1 to 2.2 and calculations indicate that within the next decade the ratio will already be less than 1 to 2. As such the aging of society is one of the greatest challenges facing welfare and family policy. For this reason the pension insurance scheme has long since been undergoing re-structuring: As a result of demographic trends the traditional ”cross-generational contract“ is less and less able to be financed, such that private individuals are having to supplement it by making their own provisions for old age. In addition, family-related measures to increase the number of children, such as raising child benefit and increasing the number of kindergarten and crèche places, are also being implemented.

Families – an important social institution

Even in the highly individualized, highly mobile 21st century world, the family is still of fundamental importance for people. Over the years its importance as the nucleus of life has if anything increased rather than decreased. For almost 90 percent of the population the family comes first in their list of personal priorities. Young people also value it very highly: 72 percent of 12 to 25-year olds are of the opinion that being happy is dependent on having a family.

Yet ideas about what form families should take, as well as their structure, have changed dramatically in the wake of social change. In the traditional family, the roles played by a couple that was married for life, and bringing up several children, were strictly divided: the father was the breadwinner, the mother a housewife. This “breadwinner” model is certainly still lived out – for example in the lower social classes, by migrants, or for a certain period of time, as long as the children are still small – but it is no longer the predominant way of life.

A far wider range of forms of cohabitation has emerged. There is now significantly greater leeway in choosing between various family forms and even deciding not to have a family at all. This is in no small way connected to the altered role women play and the equal rights they now enjoy: Some 65 percent of mothers are in employment, while at the same time families have become smaller. There are more instances of single-child families than those with three or more children. Two-child families are the most widespread. There are also ever increasing numbers of people living alone or as a couple with no children. In 2008 one in five women between the age of 40 and 44 still had no children.

Increased expectations of partnerships

Not only the ways of life, but also systems of values and basic moral attitudes are undergoing constant change. Faithfulness to one’s partner remains an important value, but the norm of staying together for life has become more relaxed. In 2008, for example, an average marriage had lasted 14.1 when the couple divorced. The expectations associated with years partnership, on the other hand, have risen. This is one of the reasons for around one in three marriages over the past few years ending in divorce. As a result of this trend there has been a clear increase in the number of couples living out of wedlock. There has also been a clear increase in the number of same-sex couples cohabiting. Since 2001 a law has enabled two people of the same sex to officially register a civil partnership.

This form of cohabitation without actually being officially married is particularly popular with young people and those whose marriage has failed. As a result the number of illegitimate children has also risen: Almost a third of all children are born to unwed mothers. One result of this change is demonstrated by the increase in the number of so-called patchwork families and single parents: Around one fifth of all households with children have single parents, and as a rule these are single mothers.

As society has developed, so have relations within families themselves and models for raising children. As a rule the relationship between the different generation of parents and children is exceedingly good and for the most part is no longer characterized by traditional upbringing patterns such as obedience, subordination and dependence but by involvement and equal rights, affection, encouragement, and being brought up to be independent.

Women and men in working life

In Germany, as in other modern societies, there has been tremendous progress with regard to the equal rights for women stipulated in the Basic Law. As such, with regard to education girls have not only drawn level with, but have indeed now overtaken boys. At grammar schools they account for 56 percent of graduates; the share of young women embarking on higher education totals almost 50 percent, and 42 percent of doctorates are awarded to women.

And more and more women are embarking on careers. And the alimony laws in the case of divorce in force since 2008 make it all the more important for women to be employed, and indeed almost 70 percent of women are. Yet whereas men are primarily in full-time employment women, especially those with pre-school children, work part time.

With regard to wages and salaries there continue to be considerable differences between the sexes: Female workers in full-time employment, for example, earn signicantly less than their male counterparts. Even though nowadays they are frequently getting to occupy top jobs on the career ladder, in doing so they still encounter considerable hurdles. For some time now there has been debate about the introduction of a quota for women in top management positions.

One of the main obstacles to climbing the career ladder is the fact that on a European comparison the network of care facilities for small children still needs to be improved. With regard to the division of domestic labor as well, comparatively little has changed. Although 80 percent of fathers say they would like to spend more time with their children, even women in employment invest twice as much time looking after children. Until now it has been almost exclusively women who have made use of the new regulations governing parental leave. Although the proportion of fathers putting their career on hold to look after their child has risen since the introduction of parental support, most men only stay at home for two months.

Women are far more strongly established in politics than in the top echelons of business. In the SPD and CDU, the two main parties, almost every third and fourth member respectively is female. The rise in the proportion of women in the Bundestag is nothing if not remarkable: Whereas in 1980 they made up just eight percent of all members of parliament, this figure has now risen to almost 32 percent. Angela Merkel has been the first female German Chancellor since 2005.

Young people’s values and qualifications

Alongside their peers of the same age, whose importance has risen appreciably, the main group to which young people relate is the family. Never before have so many youngsters – almost 50 percent of 24-year old men and no less than 27 percent of women of the same age – lived at home for so long. Almost all 12 to 29-year olds state that they have a very good, trustworthy relationship with their parents.

One reason for staying at home so long is that more and more young people are staying in the education system for longer and longer. Their standard of qualification has risen considerably. In total, 45 percent of 18 to 20-year olds are entitled to study at a university. More than two thirds of grammar school leavers enter higher education within three years. Around ten percent leave the education system without qualifying. In particular young people from lower social classes and immigrant families represent problem groups for the education system.

With regard to the traditional left-wing/right-wing political divide, today’s youth is typically positioned somewhat to the left of the population as a whole; only very occasionally are there instances of political extremism. On the other hand there is a high degree of willingness to get involved with voluntary social commitment. Some three-quarters of all youngsters are actively committed to social and ecological interests: elderly people in need of help, environment and animal protection, the poor, immigrants and the disabled.

The number of young men and women opting for a voluntary social or ecological year is also increasing. Basic military service, on the other hand, was abolished in 2010.

Active and independent elderly people

In Germany, approximately every fourth person is over 60 years old. Because of the long-standing low birth rates and parallel increasing life expectancy, German society has the third-largest proportion of elderly people worldwide after Japan and Italy. Their ways of life and lifestyles have likewise changed and diversified a lot over the last decades. Nowadays the vast majority of elderly people lead independent lives, are socially active, in contact with their children and relatives, and for the most part in terms of health in a position to determine their own lives and actively decide how to make use of their time.

Financially speaking the elder generation is for the most part taken care of: The 1957 pension reform gradually gave pensioners a full share in the nation’s wealth. Poverty in old age has not been done away with entirely, but the risk of being poor in old age is lower than that of other age groups.

It is increasingly seldom for three generations of one family to live under the same roof, but there are frequently strong emotional bonds between grown-up children and their parents and between grandparents and grandchildren. A Federal Government specimen project seeks to strengthen and secure cross-generational ties. Almost every district and each municipality in Germany now boasts a so-called multi-generational house. The 500 subsidized buildings, to which 15,000 people are committed nationwide, form a point of contact, network and hub for family advice, health support, crisis intervention and care planning.

Immigration and integration

Germany is the most populous country in the European Union. Some 82 million people live on German territory, a good one in six in what was formerly East Germany. The north and east in particular are home to the national minorities of the Danes, the Frisians, the German Sinti and Roma gypsies, and the Sorbian people. They have their own culture, language, history, and identity.

Ever since the 1950s post-war boom the German economy has been dependent on immigrant workers. The majority of those who were at the time referred to as “guest workers” have now returned to their home countries in South and Southeast Europe, but many have stayed on in Germany to earn their keep. Many of the Turkish immigrants who came to Germany at a later date have also remained in the country. This has resulted in Germany gradually developing from a country that accommodated guest workers to a country with regulated immigration.

Repatriates of German descent, who for generations have been living in the states of the former Soviet Union, Romania and Poland, are a second major group of immigrants. Since the collapse of the communist systems they have been returning to Germany in increasing numbers.

These two groups of immigrants resulted in the per capita rate of immigration to Germany in the 1980s being considerably higher than that of classic immigration countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia. There are currently more than 15 million people with an immigrant background living in Germany. According to the German Statistics Office this figures includes all those people who have migrated to Germany as well as those born in Germany with at least one immigrant parent. Some seven million of them are foreigners, while around eight million have received German citizenship – though naturlization or because they are one of the four million repatriates. After the repatriates, the 2.5 million immigrants from Turkey represent the largest group, while a further 1.5 million come from former Yugoslavia or its successor states. There are an estimated four million Muslims living in Germany.

Lots of immigrants work as unskilled laborers, as Germany recruited workers in particular for simple activities. Studies have revealed that immigrant families in Germany have difficulty climbing the social ladder or improving their economic situation. Nonetheless, over the past two decades progress has been made with regard to integration: Acquiring German citizenship was facilitated by law, contacts between immigrants and Germans are closer, and there is more widespread acceptance of ethnic cultural variety. And the immigration law that came into power in 2005 provides for the first time an all-embracing legal framework that considers all aspects of immigration policy.

The Federal Government considers the subsequent integration of people with an immigration background to be a focus of its work. It is foregrounding their incorporation in the labor market and regards education and improving language skills as keys to integration. Since 2006, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has held an Integration Summit, which is attended by representatives of all social groups impacting on integration, including immigrant organizations.

Social security

By Sabine Giehle

Affluence for everybody and social justice: In the late 1950s that was the goal the then Federal Minister of Economics Ludwig Erhard had in mind when he introduced the social market economy in Germany. The “German model” proved to be a success story and became an archetype for several other countries. One of the pillars of this success was the extensive German welfare system. Today, Germany boasts one of the most comprehensive welfare systems. An all-embracing system of health, pension, accident, long-term care, and unemployment insurance provides protection against the financial consequences of the risks we face in everyday life. In addition, the welfare lifeline offers tax-financed services such as the family services equalization scheme (child benefit, tax concessions) or basic provisions for pensioners and those unable to work. Germany sees itself as a welfare state that considers the social protection of all its citizens to be a priority.

The welfare-state social systems in Germany have a long tradition dating back to the industrial revolution. In the late 19th century, Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck devised the principles of the state social insurance scheme; It was under his aegis that the laws relating to accident and health insurance as well as provisions for invalidity and old age were passed. Whereas in those days a mere ten percent of the population benefited from the welfare legislation, nowadays almost 90 percent of people in Germany enjoy its protection.

In subsequent decades the welfare lifeline was expanded and refined; in 1927, for example, insurance covering the financial consequences of unemployment and, in 1995, long-term care insurance were introduced. The 21st century calls for a fundamental structural realignment to the systems, in particular with regard to whether they can be financed in the long term: The increasing proportion of elderly people in the population in conjunction with a relatively low birth rate and trends in the labor market have pushed the social security system to its very limits. By means of extensive reforms politicians are now busy attempting to meet this challenge and ensure a welfare system based on solidarity for coming generations as well.

Medical care for everyone

Germany is one of the countries with the best medical care. A wide range of hospitals, medical practices and institutions guarantees medical care for everybody. With over four million jobs, health care is the largest employment sector in Germany. All in all, 10.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is spent on health – 1.5 percent more than the average in the OECD member countries. As a result of the so-called cost-cutting law introduced in the wake of the reform already undertaken to the health system, Germany now registers the lowest per capita increase in health spending of all OECD countries.

In 2007 a reform of the healthcare system was passed. Its key pillar is the Health Fund: Since 2009 all the contributions paid by employees and employers to the statutory health insurance scheme flow into this Fund. This is supplemented by tax revenue. Ever since there has been a standardized contribution set by the Federal Government for health insurance. For each insured person the health insurance companies receive a flat rate from the Health Fund. Companies which insure a particularly large number of old or sick people and low earners receive a subsidy. The Federal Government’s long-term aim is to enable more autonomy with regard to contributions and greater regional differentiation. In addition contributions are to be introduced that are not based on income, but which are to be balanced out through social security payments. To enable health costs to be almost entirely de-coupled from wage ancillary costs, the employers’ share of the health costs is not to rise any further.

More private provision for pensions

Fundamental changes have also been made to provisions for old age. Although compulsory pension insurance remains the single most important pillar of income in old age, in-company and private pension schemes are becoming increasingly important. The so-called “Riester pension” and the “Rürup pension” for the self-employed are models already in existence, enabling by means of tax concessions private pension schemes covered by capital contributions. The Owner-occupied Property Act also encourages residential property. Part of the reform involves raising the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67: Between 2012 and 2035 the initial retirement age will rise by one month a year.

Further reforms of the social security system

The reform of support for the long-term unemployed and those receiving social assistance has already been implemented. With the introduction of basic support for the unemployed those who had formerly been receiving social security, as long as they were capable of working, were put on a par with the long-term unemployed.

by Rainer Geißler

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