Psychologist and author Stephan Grünewald and his colleagues at the rheingold institute of media and market research, founded in Cologne, conducted thousands of in-depth interviews to get to the heart of "what makes Germany tick" — which is also the title of his latest book, Wie tickt Deutschland?, released this month.
DW: Your new book has just been published with the title Wie tickt Deutschland? (What makes Germany tick?) Please tell us more.
Stephan Grünewald: The subtitle of the book is "Psychology of a troubled society," and what we've observed, across the thousands of in-depth interviews we have done at the rheingold institute in recent years, is a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, that often shifts into anger. Although we are a country that lives in relative prosperity, people still look anxiously to the future and feel that social cohesion has been lost.
Where does this contradiction come from? After all, Germany is a rich country and people enjoy a good medical system here. Where does this dissatisfaction comes from and especially, this fear?
It's almost an affluence phenomenon. Germany is one of the last paradises. But at the same time, people realize that the world is changing. The future is coming, but the future is not experienced as an opportunity, but rather, as the onset of horror.
You said that this dissatisfaction and fear are expressed in anger. In what way?
Firstly, we have the huge problem that many people do not feel appreciated in society. Parts of the population feel that the social elites look down on them in a sniffy, arrogant manner. This means that people feel a lack of social solidarity, that there is a class that considers itself morally superior, that it doesn't have to change its lifestyle, while the others, the "stupid" ones, those of yesterday, are in the wrong and have to do the work to change. A principle of solidarity used to exist in former times. People had the impression that the elites fought for the rights of those in a weaker position; they fought for educational reforms, for social justice.
Now one has the feeling that we have a social division in this sphere of idealism, but also in the material sphere. People experience that they're not getting any interest on the money they save at the bank. That used to also be an expression of appreciation. They are worried that at some point they will no longer be able to afford a place to live in the inner cities. They ask themselves "Do I still have the right to stay here in Germany at all? And they are also concerned that digitization and artificial intelligence will rationalize their jobs.
You once said in another interview that there are no shared dreams here in the country, but also, that there are no shared fears. What would shared dreams look like?
When we look at German history after the war, the common dream was: We want to rebuild the country and experience prosperity. Then there was the dream: We want to be included again into the international community of nations. Then, in the 1968 generation, there was the dream: We'll build another Germany that is more peaceful, more emancipated, more tolerant, more just.
What we observed, with the dissolution of the East-West dialectic, was that these common dreams dissolved. The next change involved an attitude of: OK, we can improve this. But then it became clear that even economic prosperity no longer leads to a collective dream. Instead, people realized that certain realms of society benefit; others do not.
Of course, this led to an escape into individualism, into self-optimization. The dream of cultivating community has been more or less replaced by personal ego maximization, by situational self-interest.
Is that why you also said people cannot share their fears? Surely there are global fears, for example, about climate change, about terrorist attacks. Can't people share such fears, or are they still too preoccupied with themselves?
I don't think that's really possible anymore. Perhaps to some extent in the context of climate change, where young people are becoming active in particular, but even when it comes to the issue of climate change, there is a division among countries, among those who are pragmatic and situationally self-interested and do not want to have to forego anything, do not want driving bans, and those who call for more radical measures for environmental protection.
We spoke earlier about the worries and dissatisfaction among Germans. To what extent are these worries German-specific? Can't the dissatisfaction also be transferred to Europe in general? After all, there is the "Yellow Vest" movement in France, for example.
I think that this problem of a lack of esteem and appreciation also exists in France, in America. It's a society that has lost its shared dreams, its common perspectives, and which is increasingly drifting apart. It's a a phenomenon that can lead to anger.
But there is another phenomenon, which is certainly a European or a global one, namely that digitalization in the private sphere via smartphones is radically changing our expectations of the world.
There's this image of us as though a smartphone lends us an additional body part. It's like it's a scepter of power — one that promises us to be omnipotent, omniscient, and above all suggests that processes that used to be time-consuming, step-by-small-step, can now be carried in one single blow. With our smartphone and the magical swipe of our index finger, we can make transactions, google global knowledge, hook up with partners, book travel getaways. And that raises great expectations. It's like we can suddenly deal with all of life's tribulations with the swipe of a finger.
The thing is, that clashes with the reality of everyday life. Real, true life remains difficult and cumbersome. We are still confronted with partners who contradict us, children who demand our attention, work superiors who hassle us. In other words, we are constantly shifting from digital omnipotence into analog powerlessness. This process triggers anger because this analog contradiction is no longer perceived as God-given or naturally accepted, but as a huge imposition, as fraud, as the betrayal of expectations of salvation that digital technology promises.
In other words, the gap between our greater expectations and real life has widened...
Exactly. We suddenly have a tremendous incline. Anyone who sits at a computer is familiar with this. We press a button and wait for a page to open. It may take a few seconds longer, and already we are restless and annoyed and impatient.
Regarding another topic: There has been a tremendous amount of back and forth when it comes to Brexit, especially last and this week. How can people cope with such permanent political instability? At some point, everything collapses, does it not?
Particularly in times of upheaval, people naturally expect predictability, reliability and a clear orientation from politicians. Now, in England, the parties are so entangled in their self-interests, their power games, that it is no longer comprehensible to ordinary people what is happening. Where is this going and is it a development people can even moderate? In Germany, too, the parties have lost their function of demonstrating orientation. Many people have the feeling that politics are exchangeable.
It is not only the British who are/will be impacted by Brexit, but Europeans in general. How could the whole back-and-forth of Brexit translate into anger?
I think Brexit is similar to what happened with Donald Trump's presidency: It's been a wake-up call. People realized that something is happening. There were certainties for a long period of time that provided stability, but they have disappeared.
Now there's a restlessness, especially among young people, what happens when this Europe drifts apart, when what we have as the freedom to travel, this great trading region, when the global networks that we have suddenly erode again and we fall back into sectionalism. There is this fundamental anxiety in which no one, I believe, can assess exactly what will result from Brexit and to what extent it will affect the economy and living conditions. But, it certainly is a sign of the end of an era and that causes major concerns on a subliminal level.
Stephan Grünewald appears regularly in the media to discuss the trends of the nation and the world. He's written a host of other books, including Die erschöpfte Gesellschaft. Warum Deutschland neu träumen muss (An Exhausted Society. Why Germany Needs New Dreams) and Deutschland auf der Couch: Eine Gesellschaft zwischen Stillstand und Leidenschaft (Germany on the Couch: Society Between Standstill and Passion).