Unity with differences

August 2009

Almost exactly 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany fell. 2009 is the year in which this anniversary will be celebrated. But it is also the year of an economic crisis affecting people in the whole of Germany and highlighting that some striking differences remain even to this day.

In a place where Helmut Kohl once conjured up an image of “flourishing landscapes” the mood is currently particularly dismal. Germans in the East are plagued by fears of job losses far more than those in the West. Unemployment is already significantly higher there anyway: according to reports from the Federal Employment Agency of Germany the level of unemployment in July was almost double that in the West (see download). It therefore comes as no surprise that on average, approximately a third of East Germans between the ages of 14 and 64 perceive the job of the main earner in the household to be at risk. In the “old” German states this figure is around 15% lower. These results are from a survey carried out by GfK Nürnberg e.V. (the GfK Association).

Common stereotypes are being called into question in light of these circumstances. In the past, clichés about East Germans traditionally focused on their humanity, in contrast to the individualism perceived to dominate among people in the West. Now, however, particularly Eastern Germans of working age fear that in future the social climate in Germany will become cooler and that the attitude of “every man for himself” will increase. Over 80% anticipate a rise in selfishness as a result of the crisis – a good 10% more than in the West.

At the same time, there is a higher level of skepticism in the “new” German states with regard to better controls of the financial markets, increased fairness in the financial and economic spheres and rapid reforms. Older East Germans in particular have strong doubts as to whether the economic system will become fairer, and do not believe that the necessary political and economic changes will occur more quickly because of the crisis. Is this generation of Eastern Germans particularly disillusioned, as a result of their (post) reunification experiences regarding reforms? What is certain is that East and West have experienced the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall very differently. 

Pensioners: small luxuries in the East, products that retain their value in the West

Pensioners in the East also differ from their contemporaries in the West in their behavior as individuals. Despite, or perhaps precisely because of the crisis, people in the East will not readily deny themselves a few material pleasures. While 42% of Eastern pensioners plan to treat themselves to a little luxury more often in future, in the West this figure is only 32%. Instead, when shopping in these times of crisis, older people in the West are placing greater importance on products that retain their value instead. Are these differences a question of financial freedom or rather of attitudes?

Young consumers: own four walls versus own region

Similar to the elderly, the preference for products that retain their value among younger consumers up to the age of 39 depends strongly on from where they come. It is apparent that younger people living in the East are keeping a closer eye on their money. While in the West of Germany at least a third of under 40 year-olds intend to spend extra on making their own homes more comfortable, in the East many in the younger generation will not be making any such changes. In the foreseeable future, only 17% will invest in new decorative items, furniture and wallpaper. Young people in Eastern Germany place importance on their surroundings, even if not on the contents of their own four walls: here, regional products appear on the shopping list significantly more often than in the West. This is a measure that not only expresses local bonds and ethical ideals, but also frequently helps save costs too.

Not everything is different

However, on this issue there is more unity among consumers from Germany’s older generations than among younger people. Evidently the affinity for regional products rises across the country with increasing age, as does the willingness to donate more for neighborhood projects.

The topic of going out is also more a question of age than of origin. Here it is particularly the middle generation, aged between 40 and 64, which is changing leisure time habits and shows greater willingness to forgo evenings out.

Both East and West and young and old are completely united on the issue of prices. The crisis and certainly also the striking price battles among retailers have ensured that the majority of those questioned in East and West intend to look even more closely and make comparisons before taking items off the shelf in future. At least this is something that the crisis has contributed to German unity.

Data source: GfK Association (Omnibus survey, May/June 2009.

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: hello@nim.org.