The German Fear of Unemployment | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 06.08.2005
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The German Fear of Unemployment

Angst over the hovering specter of unemployment reached an all-time high last January as the number of unemployed climbed to over five million. Germany's neighbors have similar problems, but the fear seems less severe.


When will unemployment hit me?

"Germany is a country in which many people are unhappy and don't have a job any more," a Dutch correspondent once described the 'German disease.' "If they do, however, have a job, then they want to work as little as possible."

The questions is what has gone wrong in Germany so that the mood has soured to this degree and politicians lack the courage to lead with confidence. High unemployment has seemingly laid Germany lame. Everyone today has an unemployed friend or relative, said Bernd Bohn, a psychologist at the University of Bremen. And thus the feeling has spread: Nothing is secure any more, the question is only: When will it hit me? In neighboring countries, however, the problem is dealt with differently.

"We saw in Britain in the 1970s how Maggie Thatcher gave a proper crash course in flexibility," Bohn said. A more relaxed approach was taken in the Netherlands in the late 1980s, when all societal groups -- workers, corporations, politicians and unions -- pulled together and agreed that something has to change.

"We have to become more flexible," Bohn said. "For example, when we are unemployed, then we must be prepared to work for three or six months at 'below cost.'"

Gainful employment isn't everything

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Getting training to find a new job

Flexibility is the magic word for industrial psychologists. Examples are to be found in Britian and the USA. Here, as in Germany, many people find themselves temporarily without work, but there they use the time to gain further qualifications to give them competitive advantage in the job market.

German politicians attack the problem too one-sidedly by constantly blaming the private economy for not creating more jobs. There has to be a mental paradigm shift, Bohn said.

"We continue to define ourselves primarily through our occupation, and this is, after all, the basis for our material existence," he added. "If we could have a change in attitude at the societal level, then that would provide a foundation for dealing with unemployment on an individual basis."


Caring for the elderly is not valued enough

Gainful employment is not the only way to justify one's self, one's personality, and feeling of self-worth, Bohn said. Society should place more value on volunteer work and other occupations that benefit society at large.

Generous insurance and efficient placements

The Danes also changed their mental attitudes after the economic crisis a decade ago. The tiny northern neighbor has an extremely flexible labor market with hardly any protection against getting fired.

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She'll get generous unemployment money should she need it

Instead Denmark has one of Europe's most generous unemployment insurance plans. It pays up to 1,800 euros ($2,226) per month over a four-year period. At the same time, job placement programs find tailor made traineeships, even if the demands on the job seekers are quite high.

The Austrians have also begun to feel the crunch in the past years. There the long-term unemployed are still better compensated than in Germany, and the placement system is more efficient. In the Alpine republic, the rule is: If the placement agencies work efficiently, then the state can be more generous.

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