What Can We Learn From Germany?
We have to admit, however grudgingly, that the right team won the World Cup. There was no obvious stand-out team for most of the tournament, but following their 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in the semi-finals, it was clear that Germany had by far the most balanced team.
They didn’t have a megastar player like Ronaldo or Messi, but there were no significant weaknesses in the team either. To use that tiresome cliché, Germany were ‘efficient’. The rest of the football world is playing catchup.
But it goes beyond football. In terms of economic growth and an approach to life, we in Britain have much to learn from modern-day Germany. It’s very easy to get to Germany in this age of the Channel Tunnel and cheap flights, but it’s remarkable just how little most Britons know about our old rival.
Last year, the BBC made a fascinating programme called ‘Make Me a German’ in which journalist Justin Rowlatt and his wife, Bee, spent a week in Germany and tried to live life as typically as an average German would.
They went to great lengths to get the specifics right, and consulted an advertising agent who had done much research in this area. Everything from the time they got up in the morning, to the supermarket they shopped in, to how they spent their spare time had to be as typical of the average German family as possible. So much so, that they left two of their four children with the grandparents in London, as the average German birth-rate is 1.4 children per couple.
The findings of this programme were fascinating, and each aspect of life can teach valuable lessons to us here in Britain:
Germans work less and earn more than we do. Two thirds work for small and medium sized businesses, most of which are family-owned.
There is no Microsoft, Apple or Amazon in Germany. These are specialist businesses – they tend to do one thing and do it very well. In this instance, Justin went to work at a pencil factory that exported all around the world.
The way they prepare young people for work is different. In Britain, the emphasis is on getting young people to university, even if that means saddling them with huge debts with no guarantee of a good job at the end of it. In Germany, more than half of young people do apprenticeships, something far less rare in Britain due to social snobbery and businesses being unwilling to shell out the costs of training someone up.
There is a sense of loyalty – a lot is expected of the staff but in return the company will do certain things to try to retain them. Like everything else in the programme, Justin’s job at the pencil factory was average and typical of the country.
Germans typically work an eight hour day, which includes an hour for lunch, in which Justin went for a hot meal at the heavily-subsidised staff canteen.
The work itself is hard and disciplined. You are there to work, not to discuss your personal life, gossip about celebrities, or spend half the day on Facebook. You owe it to yourself, your colleagues and your employer to do an honest day’s work.
One of the ways the pencil company helped its staff was by a doctor carrying out regular health checks on the staff. This also gives staff the chance to discuss minor medical matters, something that in Britain would involve making a GP’s appointment, which could quite easily take them away from the workplace for around half a day.
The pay is good, and although wages don’t really rise much above inflation, job security is high. In Justin’s case, he earned €2,250 per month. In addition, he received a transport allowance and extra for working shifts, taking his total monthly salary to €2,802 per month. He also received 30 days holiday per year.
There are taxes to be paid: Income tax, health insurance, pension insurance, unemployment insurance and payment towards nursing care. Justin also pays less tax because he and his wife have children (more on that later).
On top of his salary, Justin will receive a production bonus. It’s yet another incentive to work hard and not let your colleagues down.
Compare this to Britain, where the culture is work long hours in insecure jobs, have the bare minimum of holiday leave, have to rely on a very basic, bureaucratic healthcare system in the NHS, as well as make your own provisions for your old age in terms of nursing costs and anything beyond the miserly state pension.
There is no property owning fetish in Germany, and unlike Britain, there is no social snobbery attached to renting. Taking out a huge mortgage just so you can say you ‘own’ your own home is not the norm. More than half of Germans rent, including many in well-paid jobs. As ‘typical Germans’, the Rowlatt family lived in a fairly spacious rented 1970s apartment.
Wives and Children
This is where Britain really has lost the plot. Radical leftist and New Labour disciple Patricia Hewitt described stay-at-home mothers as a ‘problem’. Many British women consider being out of the house working, and dependant on the state and an employer rather than a husband as being ‘liberated’. The role of the parent has largely been taken over by the state in the form of ‘childcare’, namely handing very young children over to strangers whose attention will be split between yours and other children.
British ‘childcare’ is a very peculiar concept indeed. Many lower income families have no choice but to do it. Those with higher incomes often decide to let one parent (usually the mother) to stay at home, while making significant sacrifices. They rarely complain, but many draw the line at having to pay taxes to subsidise ‘childcare’ for other families of similar means where both parents choose to work.
We have to wonder why Ms Hewitt and other New Labour apparatchiks are so keen on this. Separating children from their parents as soon as possible so that the state can install its conformist values on them has long been one of the key cardinals of communist regimes, the sort which many New Labour ministers supported in their youth (Hewitt, Reid, Clarke, Mandelson, and others). How many of them still hold these views deep down, but are too politically savvy to say them in public?
Things are very different in Germany. The tax system is unashamedly designed in such a way that it is both affordable and practical for mothers of young children to stay at home and bring them up. There is a social stigma against mothers who go out to work, called ‘raven mothers’. Germans rightly understand that young children require a level of attention that cannot be provided by a stranger in ‘childcare’. They teach them such things as table manners and appropriate behaviour, which would be very welcome indeed in Britain where children running around restaurants and making a noise on public transport has become increasingly common in recent years.
As toddlers, children typically spend a few hours each day in kindergarten, which costs just a fraction of ‘childcare’ in Britain, but these take a very different form. In the programme, Bee took her children to an outdoor kindergarten in a forest. Toys were banned, children bonded with nature and developed their communication skills with each other. Importantly, they also learnt to clean up after themselves and the site was spotless as they left. They seemed happy and content – they were allowed to be children and spent time in a natural environment, rather than in stuffy rooms with computers and plastic toys.
Primary school doesn’t start until the age of six and the school day is short. At secondary school age, there is a three-pronged system which sends children to schools that best suit their abilities and natural skills. There isn’t some cruel ‘Eleven Plus’ style exam to determine this, instead, it takes the form of a discussion between parent, pupil and teacher, and the decision can easily be changed if it turns out to be the wrong one.
The overwhelming majority of Germans shop at discount supermarket chains, with Aldi having by far the biggest market share. Credit cards are frowned upon – the German word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’ – ‘schulden’, and people mostly pay for things with good honest cash.
Social life in Germany seems more varied and more interesting than in Britain, where millions come home from work and spend night after night watching television, barely knowing their neighbours or having much to do with the wider community. In every German town and city, there are lots of ‘societies’ where people take part in purposeful social activities. In this instance, Justin joined a singing society (a particularly popular activity), a group of about 30 people, male and female, from a varied age group. There was plenty of time for eating and drinking both in the interval and afterwards, but the singing itself was structured and had a purpose.
In Germany, Sunday is a genuine day of rest. The shops are closed and people are expected to behave quietly. Noisy activities such as drilling and mowing the lawn are prohibited and police have the power to impose fines, on a scale of proportion, for people who violate such laws. In this programme, there was an incident (possibly staged) where the Rowlatt children were making a noise that disturbed the neighbours, and they received a visit from a neighbour, a policeman, who informed them of the Sunday laws.
In Britain, the Sabbath was largely abandoned in 1994, when the Sunday Trading Act effectively turned the day into one of shopping and spending, rather than worship, relaxation and family.
The way in which German football clubs are run is radically different from those in the English Premier League. In Germany, the fans own 50% plus one share. Tickets for good seats cost around €15, meaning ordinary fans can easily afford to watch their teams play.
The English Premier League is to a large extent predictable, with leading clubs more-or-less buying a place in the near the top of the league. There is a soullessness about it. Well over half the clubs are now under foreign ownership, and there is a real sense of detachment between the clubs and the communities in which they are based. The stadiums may be full, but the atmospheres are flat as ordinary fans are priced out of the ground with corporate interests and the well-off filling the seats.
Many foreign owners see buying a football club as a snobbish status symbol, the same way insecure men in Britain buy Porsches to draw attention to themselves. Another motive for a person of extreme wealth to buy a football club is that it can effectively become a form of money laundering.
The way German clubs are structured prevents this from ever happening to them, and what’s more, they’re very successful! German clubs have been far more prevalent in the latter stages of the Champions League than their English counterparts in recent seasons, and, as is now blatantly obvious, a far better structure is in place to ensure the German national team has a good supply of talent. The matches themselves are played in atmospheric, noisy stadiums populated by real fans.
In conclusion, German people, it seems, do not take their lifestyles for granted. The country was flattened and bankrupted after World War II, and it required hard work, discipline and good management to build it up. Much more recently, the cost of reunification in the period after 1989 was hugely expensive. Today, Germany is effectively bailing out countries caught up in the Eurozone crisis.
Personal financial responsibility is taken seriously. As we’ve already established, debt is discouraged, while people on average save far more of their incomes, allowing banks to loan out far more to people starting their own small businesses.
Germany will continue to face difficulties and challenges in the years ahead as the Eurozone crisis continues, yet in terms of work, family, leisure and overall quality of life, there is much we in Britain could learn.