Zombie Institutions and Zombies in Institutions

A reporter for the Berlin Tagesspiegel visits (g) an evangelical Christian church in Berlin, where the congregation is young, hip, friendly, and enthusiastic. The big mainstream established churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant, have been hemorrhaging members, but the evangelical churches are growing, even without the official status and tax subsidies the big churches get.

The big churches are zombie institutions — they still exist, even though their primary purpose has nearly disappeared. They still do secondary stuff like run hospitals and schools, but only a small fraction of Germans use them for regularly gathering to celebrate the Christian faith. Germany has a lot of these zombie (or near-zombie) institutions, some huge, some as tiny as a single job. Examples: TV license collecting bureaucracies, various commissions which produce reports and recommendations nobody will ever read, dead-weight older professors and teachers and civil servants who have stopped showing up, or are on various kinds of permanent sick leave.

Part of this is down to Germans. Germans on average, are conservative and tradition-oriented, so they will keep doing stuff that previous generations did, even if it no longer serves much of a purpose. (This is why you still see fax numbers everywhere). Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in official state churches preach to near-empty churches in German cities, but they are government employees with great job security and benefits. You basically can’t fire them.

And they don’t want to quit. In many other countries, people might give up jobs like this, since every workday means being confronted with the increasing futility of your profession. Why not switch to something more fulfilling — some thing people actually want you to do? Because that’s not how most Germans think. Most Germans still show up to do jobs which have become largely meaningless (most of which are in the public sector, of course). Who cares if your job makes no sense in the larger scheme of things? Who cares if nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it? Your psyche doesn’t require you to actually care about something larger than yourself or transform your life into a kick-ass mission to change the world. It only requires that you perform certain assigned duties, in accordance with contractual stipulations. And by God, you’re gonna do that.

The other reason is institutional stickiness. Say you have a 61-year-old schoolteacher, Elfriede, who’s burned out. She starts showing up only a few times a week, and then began daisy-chaining various kinds of sick leave, disability leave, and vacation to the point that she never shows up for weeks, or even months, at a time. (Very much doable if you’re clever).

Now the rest of the staff is faced with a dilemma. Sure, you can fire Elfriede, but you know that as soon as she notices that process starting, she’ll wake up from her magical slumber, hire a lawyer, and fight. She doesn’t want to do her job, but she also doesn’t want to lose it. You may be able to finally fire her, after a 12-to-18 month process, minimum. But you’re still less than halfway done. Now, you’ll need to go through the complex rigmarole of hiring someone new: publishing job announcements, holding interminable meetings to discuss qualifications, commissioning the disability and gender equity ombudsmen to issue reports, holding interviews, negotiating about office space and funding for assistants, etc.

It’s all a huge hassle. Why not just keep her on the payroll until she ages out at 65? It’s only four years, and replacing a retiring employee is easier than firing someone. And during the interminable meetings held to discuss what to do about Elfriede, something magical happens: Other professors and staff realize, quietly, to themselves: “Holy crud, she’s going to get away with it. Which means I can too, when I get to be 61 or 62. That means three or four extra years of de facto retirement, while I’m still accruing pension benefits.”

Does this mean they’ll all head for the exits at 61? No, these are Germans, after all. 80% of them will keep working, and many will keep helping for free even after their official retirement. But maybe 20% of the most dissatisfied and bored fifty-something profs intend to pull an Elfriede. And 30% of the fifty-something profs would at least like to keep that option open. So they vote to keep Elfriede on the payroll, to set a precedent they can follow later.

Germans will keep showing up for jobs that they find meaningless, which keeps zombie institutions alive. And if they stop showing up, German law makes it prohibitively complex and expensive to fire them, which keeps zombies within institutions alive.