Although Germany came sixth in the medals table of the 2012 Olympic Games, it has been number one in other areas for many years. In the list of concerns, Germany and France together topped the rankings in Europe in 2012. Germans are, however, worrying less than they did in the previous year. Unemployment continues to be the top concern, but there has been a considerable decrease in the level. Under the shadow of the eurozone crisis, consumers are increasingly fearful of rising prices and falling purchasing power.
To begin with positive news: Germans are worrying significantly less than they did last year. On average, each German named 2.6 problems that urgently needed to be resolved, which is a considerable reduction from 2011, when it was 3.7 problems. However, compared to those across the border in other European countries, Germany remains the top nation of worriers, although now sharing this position with France. These are findings from the “Challenges of Europe” study conducted on behalf of the GfK Verein, for which more than 13,000 consumers in 11 countries were asked which issues they think require urgent resolution in their countries. The number of listed concerns is the same in France, while it is 2.3 in Poland and 2 in Austria, Italy and the UK. The Netherlands, Russia and Belgium are mid-field and the lowest number of concerns was in Sweden, with 1.1. At present, the average throughout Europe is that each citizen is worried about precisely two problems.
Which issues are currently considered to be particularly pressing varies from country to country. For example, Spain was by far the most worried about the subject of unemployment, with almost 80% of the population showing concern. This is well founded, given that unemployment in the second quarter of 2012 was more than 24% in Spain. In no other EU country are more people jobless at present. In contrast, French and Russians are most concerned about rising prices, with almost one in three considering it important to take action against this problem. This is linked closely to the issues of rent and a difficult housing market, about which France and Russia are also most concerned, with one in five putting this on their list. Italians and Spaniards, in particular, are worrying about economic stability. Almost one in three consumers in these two countries mentioned this problem.
The effects of different austerity measures are above all raising concern among Polish consumers. As the government’s intention to raise the retirement age to 67 to relieve pressure on the public finances became apparent at the end of March, the level of concern increased to 19%, which is by far the highest in Europe. However, the health system is considered to be an even greater concern in Poland, with one in four wanting the government to initiate steps for improvement. Belgium is currently still grappling with the consequences of the political turmoil of the last few years. The country was more or less without a government for one and a half years and all other problems therefore paled in comparison. Although a government was finally established in December 2011, at 18%, the political system continues to be the top concern.
Criminality is at the lower end of the scale when looking at the EU ranking as a whole. However, in Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, this continues to be a key issue. With a rating of 12% each, these three countries are above the European average. A similar scenario applies for concern about youth unemployment, which ranks tenth for Europe as a whole, but is much higher than the average in Italy and Poland. In Sweden, which is the nation with the least worries, this issue is on the minds of 14%, which is more than in other EU countries.
Although the rate of unemployment in Germany rose by 0.2 percentage points in July, the German labor market is largely defying the crisis in Europe. Although this problem is still the most pressing for Germans, it is considerably less so than in the previous year. While more than half the respondents cited the battle against unemployment as the most important in 2011, it has now dropped to just over a third. The current rankings also reflect the fact that more Germans were employed in 2011 than has been the case for 20 years.
Even though employment agencies have predominantly had positive news to report recently, Germans do not quite trust the situation. After all, the European debt crisis does present considerable risks for the German economy, and it is not only consumers who are of this opinion. Although the rise in gross national product in 2011 was relatively high at 3%, experts predict that the increase this year will be much lower at 1%. This is attributable to exports within the eurozone being much weaker due to the crisis and greater awareness among consumers as a result. Last year, only 14% of respondents mentioned economic development as a problem, this increased to 24% in 2012 and is therefore third in the rankings of concerns.
Although fears of inflation have reduced, this concern is still second in the rankings. More than a quarter of Germans consider price increases and a fall in purchasing power to be a key challenge. In comparison with 2011, the percentage has dropped by seven points, but this by no means gives the all-clear as the good salary agreements and a high employment rate are countered by rising energy prices troubling consumers. In addition, uncertainty in the eurozone is causing many Germans to doubt the stability of the single currency and fueling concern about the fall of the currency.
According to media reports, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing for a turbulent autumn after her summer vacation in South Tyrol. The euro crisis, the sluggish progress of change in energy policy and discussions about childcare benefits are likely to keep the government busy in the coming months. The impression that political leaders have made on consumers so far could be improved and the issues of policy and government was again number four on the top 10 list of concerns among Germans. In light of coalition and political party disputes, the scandal and resignation of Christian Wulff and some unpopular decisions in managing the crisis, the slight upward trend of the last few years could not be halted or reversed this year either. The Causa Guttenberg scandal is also very fresh in German minds. Overall, 13% of Germans think there is a need for further action in the area of policy.
The rise in precarious employment conditions and the issue of poverty among older people have also driven uncertainty among consumers. The number of respondents who consider the battle against poverty to be important has doubled since last year, reaching its highest level ever at 12% and therefore number 8 in the ranking. Nonetheless, a look at other socio-political issues shows that people are still counting on the social security systems. Fewer feel there is a need for action to be taken when it comes to pensions, social security and health than did so in 2011. It remains to be seen what impact the organ donor scandal in Germany will have on the medical sector as this only hit the headlines after the survey had been concluded. Taking into consideration that the GKV (statutory health insurance) coffers are full, only 11% of Germans currently think that action needs to be taken, which is 8 percentage points less than in the previous year.
Concerns about education policy decreased to an even greater extent. For now, the turbulence from discussions about the double intake for the Abitur school year has clearly settled. In 2011, almost a quarter of Germans considered education to be in an emergency state of sorts, but this has now fallen to only 12%. Despite this, Germany is still the leader in Europe for concern about this issue. The weaker results of the PISA study in recent years are clearly still very fresh in people’s minds. More than a year after the Fukushima disaster, environmental protection is still a worry. Overall, the level of concern fell by two percentage points to 12%, but a greater reduction might have been expected given the decision to phase out nuclear energy. Clearly the ongoing debate on how to manage the switch to alternative energies is keeping this issue on the agenda for consumers.
When looking at the most important challenges, East and West Germans are only vaguely in agreement. Although similar issues are listed, the order and extent of concern varies quite considerably for some issues.
As in previous years, concern about jobs is number one in both East and West Germany. However, while almost a third of respondents between Baden-Württemberg and Hamburg list this concern, 45% of respondents in the structurally and industrially weaker East do so. People here are also more worried about the stability of the currency, with nearly 40% listing price and purchasing power growth as a key task, putting it second in the rankings. In the West, this value is 15 percentage points weaker as only about a quarter are worried about rising prices. This topic is therefore third in the ranking, after concern for economic stability (West 25%, East 18%).
The greatest disparity is evident for the number four concern. In the newer federal states, this is social security with 14%, which does not even make the top 5 in the old states, but is ninth. Instead, West Germans are more worried about the development of policy and government (14%) than they were in the previous year. In East Germany, this topic is sixth on the list. East and West put the same concern fifth in the ranking, with retirement schemes and pension provision named as an area needing action by 13% of both East and West Germans.
It is not only the region, but also the particular life world which affects what is on people’s minds. Although the battle against unemployment is important across all age groups, the middle class are particularly sensitive. This social group also lists the development of inflation as a challenge most often, with a third stating that action needed to be taken, which is seven percentage points above the average. The issues of pensions and the health system are most unsettling those who have the greatest familiarity with them. One in four pensioners list retirement schemes as a pressing concern and 17% of this group think that the health system is lacking in some way. By comparison, the corresponding values for students and young trainees are only 2% for pensions and 4% for the health system. Evidently these issues are still too far removed from their own lives to be of great concern.
“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” is the title of a self-help book by motivational coach Dale Carnegie which was published in 1948 and sold millions of copies. Germans clearly struggle to follow this simple idea and have been the European champions at worrying for years, although many challenges are not considered to be quite as critical as they were a year ago. Unemployment is less dominant in people’s minds now that the actual situation has improved a little. But other problems and uncertainties remain, which comes as no surprise as more news on the unstable euro, ailing economies and complex rescue measures reach us each day.
In the meantime, the Olympic flag has now been flown to Rio de Janeiro, the city overlooked by Sugarloaf Mountain which is hosting the Games in four years time. As was announced by its President, Thomas Bach, the Deutsche Olympische Sportbund (German Olympic Sports Confederation, DOSB) intends to scrutinize German sports promotion before then. “Our aim is to keep pace with the global elite,” he said at the end of the London Games. It remains to be seen whether this will be successful. Perhaps Germany will hit the headlines in four years’ time as a medal champion, rather than a worry champion.
Data source: GfK Verein (Challenges of Europe 2012, February 2012, Challenges of Europe 2005-2011).
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