Barometer of concerns in Europe

September 2013

Euro bailout, debt reduction, public finance reform: have the many programs for stabilization in the eurozone begun to take effect? Or is the economic and debt crisis continuing to cast its shadow? In the minds of many people, the 2008 crash and its implications are still having an impact today. Europeans are worried about economic stability and fear rising prices. However, in their opinion, the most important area in which policy needs to act continues to be the labor market. This applies in Germany, despite this country being in a relatively good position at present.

As has been the case since the start of the crisis, concern about the labor market is still the issue dominating the thoughts of people throughout Europe. Although the issue has become slightly less acute since 2010, it is still the number one issue in nine of eleven countries in the survey. Overall, more than one in three Europeans are currently worried about their job. These are findings from the “Challenges of Europe 2013” study conducted on behalf of the GfK Verein for the fourth consecutive time in February. In the survey, more than 13,000 consumers in 11 countries were asked which issues they think require urgent resolution in their countries.

Labor market in Europe: top priority

Only in Russia and the Netherlands are other problems considered to be more pressing than the labor market situation. Unemployment was in the top five in both countries, but it was not the number one concern. In Russia, price rises are seen as the main issue, followed by affordable housing and adequate pension provisions. In the Netherlands, people are most concerned about economic stability.

Purchasing power and a stable economy are also on the to-do list for respondents in most other countries in the study. Taking the average across all 11 countries, fear of a loss in purchasing power is second in the list of concerns, with 20%, followed by economic stability, where 15% of Europeans think there is a need to act. In light of stringent austerity measures and weakening economic data, especially in Southern European countries, people are also focusing their attention on the health system and the real estate market. They are asking themselves how medical care and affordable rent can be secured despite the strained financial situation, with these issues ranking fourth and fifth at 11% and 10% respectively.

Reality check for worry

Did you hear about the 2012 word of the year in Germany? Back then, the jury of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (German Language Society) chose the term “Rettungsroutine” (bailout routine), which aptly described the numerous summits and political rescue measures. Given all the crisis rhetoric of recent years, it could be presumed that a true sense of the consequences of the crisis has been lost. However, a look at statistical key figures for the different countries reveals that Europeans are quite often spot on when it comes to their concerns.

When contrasting the level of concern for the labor market with actual unemployment rates, it emerges that the countries that are most worried also have an above-average number of jobless people. The most concerned country is currently Spain (72%) where almost a quarter of the popula-tion also don't have a permanent job. Despite an unemployment rate of “only” around 11%, France is still almost as concerned as Spain. Italy and Poland have similar levels of unemployment, but are not quite as worried. In countries with relatively high unemployment rates, such as Russia and the Netherlands, concern was in fact much lower. Respondents in Austria and Germany were actually a little more worried, although unemployment in their countries was below average.

Germany is much more sensitive when it comes to fears of inflation. Despite a moderate rate of inflation in 2012, Germans are almost as concerned about rising prices as Russians, who have actually been enduring considerable purchasing power declines for many years now.

Germany: education and social equality on the agenda

Germans' “world of concern” can currently be divided into four larger and a number of smaller areas. The biggest spheres are the labor market, the economy, income and costs. Although unemployment is still top of the rankings for Germans, the level of concern has fallen a little further, following an initial strong decline last year. The euro crisis and bailout continue to weigh on minds, but not as much as they did in 2012. In this regard, national debt, economic recovery and pensions are still being thought about.

In relation to income, Germans are increasingly focusing on social equality in the country. Concern about this issue has increased by 3 percentage points on the previous year's figure. Respondents also include fairer income distribution and fixed basic income in this category. Living costs have also been a cause for concern. It was said more often than a year ago that something needs to be done to prevent escalating rents, high energy costs and rising petrol prices.

Increasing uncertainty was also evident with regard to education and family policy. The level of concern increased by 4 percentage points on the previous year, presumably triggered by debates about tuition fees and the 2012 National Report on Education, according to which Germany has not adequately done its homework in matters of education policy. Alongside these major issues, other areas of concern emerged relating to environmental protection and energy, integration, taxes and youth-related topics.

Young people: education is number one

The challenges which are of greatest concern for Germans strongly depends on the political situation at the time. Personal lifeworlds also play an important part. For the first time since the survey began, unemployment is no longer unanimously seen as the most pressing problem. At 42%, the highest level of concern about this issue was evident in the lower class, followed by the middle class and pensioners. However, among students and trainees, worry about education policy pushed unemployment fears from the top spot: 40% stated that education was the most pressing issue on the agenda. In other lifeworlds, concern about education was not even half as high.

Pensions? Barely an issue for younger people

Very few disparities are evident for worries about economic stability. In this regard, respondents across all lifeworlds are in general agreement, although students and trainees take a slightly more relaxed view of the problem than others in the survey. This social group also still has a relatively relaxed view of pensions. Despite warnings about private provisions, only 5% of the younger generation consider pensions to be the most pressing issue. In contrast, one in five respondents in retirement are worried about their continued support in old age. The remaining challenges; poverty, social security, family policy, public finances and crime, are all of more or less equal concern to Germans regardless of lifeworld.

Less severe course for Germany?

In a European comparison, Germany is in a good position in 2013. Unemployment is low and the economic situation is stable. Despite this, Germans do seem to spontaneously come up with the highest number of different problems. Is this attributable to a stereotypical German mentality? Or, as a reader commented in the Spiegel online forum, is it because only those who have something to lose worry? After all, uncertainty in Germany does seem to be waning a little now and the reality is tempering the mood of Germans. Perhaps Germans will have followed the example of Swedes by the next survey: they are in a good economic position and are the nation with the fewest worries in Europe. It is not without good reason that the proverb “worry often gives a small thing a big shadow” is Swedish.

Data source: GfK Verein (Challenges of Europe 2013).

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: