Wallets, weather, age trouble Germans most

Footing the bill for debt-ridden EU states and dependency in one's twilight years are among top causes of anxiety among Germans, along with a strong fear of natural disasters, authors of a national study said on Thursday.

Wallets, weather, age trouble Germans most
Photo: Shutterstock

"Citizens worry most about money, the environment and their health," said Rita Jakli, spokeswoman for insurance company R+V Versicherung that has produced the "Fears of the Germans" study annually since 1992.

This year, the number 1 cause of concern was the Eurozone crisis and its economic impact on Germany, cited by 60 percent of 2,400 people polled across the country.

"Germany is one of the countries that to a large and disproportional extent are liable and expected to shoulder the cost of supporting indebted EU members," said Dr Manfred Schmidt, a political scientist at Heidelberg University and adviser to the study.

Specifically, "The majority of Germans are afraid the Eurozone crisis will hit tax payers hard and that the cost of living is rising," Jakli added. But the issue was still down 8 percent on last year.

Generally though, Germans are now more relaxed than at any point in the survey's 22-year history, said the researchers, citing a two percent drop in the overall 'Fear Index'.

Old age looming large

Sharing the number two slot, a major concern for most people is old age and the prospect of dependency on others and needing special care.

Women are more worried at 58 percent, compared to 45 percent among men. The threat of serious illness also troubles 54 percent of women, compared to 40 percent of men.

"Because of their long life expectancy, women are much more afraid of having to be cared for," said Jakli. "Moreover, as a rule they carry the brunt of giving care in the home, and so they know how nerve-wracking and costly that is."  Around 2.5 million people currently receive care in Germany.

Fears that are commonly magnified by the media like terrorism feature prominently (39 percent). But  the survey also shows a sober understanding of many issues in the public spotlight, experts said.

"The Germans are not a race of scaredy-cats, but show reasonable concern for real events and problems," said Schmidt.

Generally, the public is well attuned to issues and also aware that rising living costs are due to a combination of factors, he added.

"The broad social welfare system and rigorous environmental protection [measures] demand their share of funds and pinch disposable incomes, mainly through social spending and taxes, as well as the rising cost of electricity, gas, water and garbage disposal," he said.

Flooding – but not in my back yard

At 51 percent, fear of natural disasters shared the second slot on the list, down five percent since 2013.

But consequences of extreme weather like storms and flooding that wreaked havoc in Germany in 2013 still seem abstract to many people: Only 19 percent said they feared their homes could directly suffer.

International instability also plays a large part in stoking anxiety. Fear of war and political crises plague every third citizen.

Thirty-five percent of Germans worry the country will get sucked into a military conflict, and 37 percent fear events in Ukraine can trigger an armed conflict between the West and Russia.

Another 44 percent said they were afraid of "tensions caused by foreigners".

Public confidence in politicians remains shaky but is improving. Two years ago, 55 percent thought that most politicians were simply out of their depth. This year, 44 percent thought this, up one point on 2013.

Open hostilities between government and opposition had been tempered by the formation of the grand coalition after last year's general election. This had helped restore some faith in politicians, the researchers speculated.

"Germans react sensitively to harsh public debates," said Schmidt. "A sharp and polarized party-based conflict creates political and economic anxiety, but muted and mostly internally contained competition [between parties] in the coalition has more of a calming effect."

Unemployment and living cost fears plagued residents of the former DDR more than people from the former West Germany (43 and 30 percent).  

The difference is founded, said Jakli, citing current 9.4 percent unemployment in the east compared to 5.9 percent in the west of the country.

Clued-up kids

Meanwhile, young people showed surprising maturity. Rather than fretting about dates or how to dodge school, 16-year-olds said they were most concerned about the high cost of living.

The issue ranked 15th in 1992 and rose to first place this year.  

Parents also seemed to have greater faith in their offspring making the right calls: Only 32 percent worried about drug addiction affecting their children, placing this 16th on their list of concerns.

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Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.