Europe and the American Dream

Reading time: 9 minutes

November 17, 2010
By Naomi Buck

What is the German dream and how does it relate to the mythological American one? Does the fabled trajectory from dishwasher to millionaire belong to a reality or just the collective imagination? How does one create a society in which people not only want to get ahead, but also can? The Heinrich Böll Stiftung, together with its partners, Vodafone Foundation Germany and The German Marshall Fund of the United States, dedicated a Transatlantic Conference to these questions. The experts differed in their positions and approaches but agreed that the answers will define Germany's future.

The framework for the discussion was a study commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and presented at the conference by its author Reinhard Pollak of the Social Science Research Centre Berlin. Its findings, summarised in its German title, “Kaum Bewegung, viel Ungleichheit” (Little Mobility, Much Inequality) are sobering. The “social elevator” once expected to offer motivated, talented individuals a ride up the socio-economic ladder has all but ground to a halt in Germany. The country trails the European pack in terms of social mobility.

This hasn't always been the case. For the postwar generation in Germany, growth was a given. Things kept getting better, people kept getting richer. Today's climate is a very different one, exacerbated but not caused by the recent financial crisis. With a shrinking middle class, aging society, widening gap between rich and poor, and global competition for jobs, the younger German generation can't expect to achieve a better standing than its parents; many will have to fight to maintain the standard they grew up with. According to Pollak's figures: only a third of the young generation in West Germany today has improved its standing with respect to its parents, while in East Germany, a third has lost ground.

The downturn poses problems at two levels. One is the question of fairness. Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain defined social mobility as the guarantee that “origins don't determine destiny” - a central democratic premise. The majority of Germans surveyed in Pollak's study believe they live in a country where this is the case: where education, industry and initiative and not factors beyond out control – class, age, gender, ethnicity – determine personal success. The perception clashes with the reality. In fact, Germany offers the least equality of opportunity of anywhere in Europe. As Turkish-German Chairman of the Green Party Cem Özdemir put it, fates are all but sealed in German delivery rooms.

The second issue is Germany's economic well-being. Who wants to live in system where talent doesn't count? Here too, Germany suffers a blindspot. As many agonise over whether Germany can afford to take on more immigrants, the numbers tell another story. Germany is a country of emigration and the ones leaving are among best educated and most motivated.  Armin Laschet, the former Integration Minister in Northrhine Westfalia, pointed out the irony: as late as the 1980s, Germany was offering Turks financial incentives to return to Turkey. Now it should be paying the educated ones to stay.

Germany is not alone in its need for better immigration policy. Howard Duncan, Executive Head of the Metropolis Project in Canada quoted an alarming statistic: ninety percent of the world's population under 15 lives in the developing world. “That is the world's future work force, our future work force,” he said. Germany cannot afford to be scaring away skilled immigrants with a reputation for xenophobia, social immobility, Old World elitism. Özdemir sets Germany two tasks: to figure out what kind of immigrants it needs and then how to attract them. To this end, he favours adopting some form of the Canadian point system.

Of course it makes sense to look at countries where integration and social mobility work, or at least are perceived to. The USA produced the American Dream, but it has long since ceased to be a reality, said Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The majority of those born into the bottom fifth of American society today will stay there. And in the USA today, income inequality is the greatest that it has ever been in the hundred year history of its measurement.

In fact, the American Dream is being lived beyond its borders. Within the industrialised world, social mobility is highest in northern Europe and Canada. What are these countries doing right? The answer seems to be a mix of a generous public sector, strong education system, pro-active immigration, successful multiculturalism and easy access to citizenship. But the further question is more complex: to what extent can these models be applied to Germany?

Where should Germany concentrate its efforts? The obvious answer is schooling. As PISA studies have shown, Germany's daycare shortages, half-day schooling and streaming at an early age all contribute to a system that entrenches class difference. Mannheim sociologist Walter Müller called Germany's education system a double-edged sword, offering the possibility to move beyond one's origins while in fact reinforcing them. Contrary to the popular perception, the correlation between education level and family background is weakening, especially for women. But this is only partly good news. With the expansion of education, Müller explained, employers look increasingly to “soft skills” - habitus, personal connections – which in turn reflect social class. We're back in the delivery room.

The vicious cycle feeds into job market where, according to some panelists, change is most urgently needed. Educational and professional attainment are more tightly knit in Germany than elsewhere in Europe: what you study is what you become. The job market demands high levels of certification for professions and trades alike and is riddled with red tape – all barriers to mobility, according to Tamar Jacoby, President of ImmigrationWorks USA. She calls the workplace “the crucible of integration,” in America and sees the “overwhelming path to success” being trod by immigrant entrepreneurs. Meanwhile in Germany, the Turkish vegetable vendor is cited as an example of failed integration, an attitude that the CDU politician Laschet called “perverse.”

Barbara John likewise sees employment as the key to integration and mobility. Drawing on over twenty years experience as Commissioner for Integration in Berlin, she blames Germany's overly generous welfare state for luring both immigrants and native Germans away from the workplace. Too many people have to choose between poorly paid work and better paid welfare. The choice is clear but it turns them into isolated, disenfranchised, non-participants in society. Furthermore, by denying refugees and reunified family members work visas, John sees the German state not only wasting talent and labour, but also robbing people of their self-worth. Immigrant-bashing yields good political capital in Europe but for John the facts are clear: immigrants don't burden the welfare state, the welfare state burdens them.

All in all, the conference reached no consensus on the relationship between the welfare state and mobility. Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, asserted a direct correlation between social equality and mobility, a position shared by sociologist Jörg Althammer, who considers the American Dream absolutely attainable within the continental welfare state. But Barbara John's analysis differed, as did Tamar Jacoby's, in her insistence on a flexible labour market. What's clear is that there are no clear answers. When Barbara John asked Trevor Phillips how Britain manages the balance, he said that in principle, work must pay more than the dole. But that's not the whole answer. A recent study of the meat packing industry in England found that shifts were being organised by ethnicity: Lithuanians at 4:00, Poles at 8:00 etc. Paid work, yes, but integration, no.


Indeed, it seems that integration works best in North America. Barbara Sawhill maintains that the American myth persists because of the immigrant experience: the American dream is largely the immigrant dream. In New York City, the Mexican dishwashers of yesterday are the cafe owners of today. Mobility statistics don't reflect these success stories because nothing is known about the dishwasher's parents. (European statistics are no better in this respect; both Pollak and Phillips called for better measurement practices to capture migrant destinations.) But more significant than the figures are the narratives. In the USA, the Mexican cafe owner's tale becomes part of the myth, a myth whose promise may be more powerful than the reality.

This is where national identity comes in. Both Howard Duncan and Tamar Jacoby referred to migration as “nation-building projects” in their countries, a position rooted in North America's settler history and alien to Germany, with its understanding of citizenship by blood. The success of American integration, according to Jacoby, depends on the hyphen. An Italo-American can be Italian in the private realm and American in the public; at some point, the Italianness fades and he is simply an American. America asks immigrants to buy into a minimal common ethos that includes the language, law and basic values. The rest is left up to them.  

Phillips agreed that national identity is single most important ingredient in the integration pie. Minorities will change if given a chance, he said, but they need to know what they're conforming to. “What is the essence of Germanness?” he asked the silent room. With which the conference had come full circle.

Videomitschnitte der Konferenz "Europa und der American Dream"

Fotogalerie: Europa und der "American Dream"