Well, I hope some people enjoyed the little trip into the "dark fieriness" of one of my most beloved composers, Gabriel Fauré.
But let’s face it, if you want to keep your blog readers, you’ve gotta get polemical. And this blog is, technically, supposed to be about Germany. So here we go. Strap on your seatbelts, adjust your tin-hats, and get ready for an old-fashioned stemwinder.
But before we set out, pleast note: I am making an argument as a devil’s advocate here. I may agree with some of the points made, but mainly I wanted to throw out a half-baked, but perhaps interesting analysis, and see how people react.
1. Germany will never again have full employment
Germany’s going to have over 10% unemployment for the foreseeable future. It may go up to 15%. To solve this problem, the new coalition government needs to (1) find the will to implement reforms; and (2) implement the right ones. Let’s not forget, Germany implemented a lot of painful reforms under Schröder, and unemployment went up. France introduced the 35-hour work week, and we all know where that went.
Is the new government going to get #1 and #2 right? Of course not. Why? Because the only way to seriously reduce unemployment is to introduce reforms that have no chance of getting majority support in Germany.
There’s a lot of talk about making Germany a "knowledge society" which creates high-value jobs based on innovation and high technology. You know what I say to this? Get real, people. It’s a good policy, and it holds promise, but it’s not going to get German unemployment down to 5%. That might be possible in smaller, richer, more cohesive societies such as Denmark or Sweden, but it’s not going to save Germany. First of all, Germany’s cash-strapped, bureacratized, consensus-bound university and business environments cannot hold the brightest young scientists and entrepreneurs. And no matter how ingenious your new Made in Germany micro-chip machine or medical device is, there are millions of talented people in China and India who will be happy to make it or improve it for one-third what you’d have to pay a German worker.
Second of all, even if Germany somehow manages to pull billions out of a magic hat to turn all of its universities into hotbeds of entrepreneurial creativity, that’s never going to create enough jobs for everyone — enough jobs to get unemployment down to 5% even in times of limited economic growth. There is a way to do that. It’s not a big mystery. Get rid of worker protections against firing (Kundigungsschutz), break the back of unions (á la Thatcher & Reagan), so that wages can go lower — much, much lower — to respond to shocks (see here). Tolerate the creation of a very-low wage sector where people will earn just enough to get by. Decouple social-protection schemes from job spots, so that employers can make freer decisions to hire and fire. And finally, severely reduce unemployment compensation, so people have an urgent incentive to take any job, even if it requires a long move away from home into a smaller apartment, is far beneath their qualifications, and pays them only 50% of what they made before.
These reforms would probably reduce unemployment. But only at the cost of rejecting key elements of the social bargain Germany has made with its citizens. These reforms will probably never happen in Germany, and certainly not in the foreseeable future. And I am not saying they should happen.
2. #1 Isn’t the End of the World,
Thus, we will have to live with high levels of unemployment. But what if that’s not such a big problem? Davon geht die Welt nicht unter, as Zarah Leander once sang in a rather different context.
Let’s take a page from the "post-work" theorists like Jeremy Rifkin and say to ourselves: what’s so great about regular, 9-to-5 work anyway? I had a job like that and I didn’t fancy it that much. Most people don’t. Oh sure, it looks great from the outside — the status, the money, the sense of purpose. People fill out all those forms and put together those beautiful Bewerbungsmappen (application packages), and are overjoyed when they get the job. But then, the next thing you know, they’re bitching about their rude boss, the spoiled weekends, and the fact that their piano playing skills have deteriorated and will probably never come back. Man wasn’t meant to work 7.34 hours a day sitting in front of a computer in an office, any more than he was meant to work 14 hours in a factory.
So Germany is not a failure because it has 12% unemployment. Germany is a leader in finding the new social structures that will define West European post-full-employment society. Check out these examples (German) of intelligent, capable people without regular jobs. They’ve learned to live with that fact — they are making useful contributions to society outside the context of a normal office job. One’s found he has plenty of time to spend with his young daughter. She’ll grow up better-adjusted and more adventurous than she would if her father had a regular job. These folks are innovators. They’re creating a sense of self, purpose and value outside the context of "ordinary" employment. They will show us how to live happily with less.
Yes, a post-full-employment society will be poorer. Owing to low economic growth and high social transfer payments, there will just plain be less wealth in society. Many middle-class people will have to sell their cars. Lots of people will have to give up their dream of owning their own home. Vacations will be taken to Bratislava or
Dortmund (well, perhaps not) Tübingen, not Nice or Thailand. Many people will have only part-time jobs, or work as volunteers.
This will be a painful adjustment for a society in which the population has been accustomed to prosperity. But it’s unavoidable. It will come. Now is the time to begin the adjustment; to begin valuing free time and meaningful activity over money and routine work in large institutions. To begin realizing that deriving your identity from your job is fine for people who think that way, but building it in completely different ways is also legitimate.
It can be done, and, more importantly, it will have to me done, and most importantly, it just might not be so bad after all.
So what do you think, Germany?