Germany and the U.S.:
Different Ways of Living

by Volker Kluepfel
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer, a professional journalist from the state of Bavaria in Germany, served a three-month internship with this paper during the summer. He was asked, as part of his responsibilities, to keep a diary about how his country does things as he learned how things are done in the U.S. Following are his observations.

Jumps to Discussion Topics:
Educational System
Social Security
Health Insurance
Unemployment Insurance
Welfare Aid
Family policy
Health Care
Political System

     Ohen you’re in another country you’ll find a whole different world--different buildings, different cars, different climate and, of course, different language.

     But it’s not only the striking, visible things that remind you constantly that you are a guest. It’s more the tiny little things of everyday life that make you feel different--things you aren’t aware of anymore in your own country, things you thought everyone in the whole world does just because there is no other way. But believe me: now I know there is another way. Let me share some of my experiences with you.

     Imagine an ordinary day in your life. The chances that you have to work on this day are much higher in the U.S.: Germans get at least four to five, sometimes six, weeks vacation a year. And we have got more legal holidays, too.

     So what are you going to do on a day off? Maybe you want to buy groceries in the supermarket. But when in Germany, make sure that it’s not later than eight p.m. on weekdays, or 4 p.m. on Saturdays or Sunday, because stores will be closed by then.

     When you arrive at the supermarket, the differences start before you even enter the store. In Germany you have to make a deposit of one Deutschmark (50 cents) for your shopping cart to make sure you bring it back to its proper place. If you don’t have this coin in your wallet you will have to carry the groceries--in your hands if you’re not willing to purchase a bag, but nobody will give you a free bag. And even if you buy one, you have to pack your things quickly, because nobody else will do it for you and you’re blocking the line. And don’t expect the store employees to wish you “a good day”--they don’t care what your day will be like, so why should they say it?

     On your way back home you probably want to listen to the radio. No matter where you are, in the U.S. or Germany, you will be listening to English lyrics. Even the German bands usually sing in English.

     Make sure that you don’t drive through any red lights: this will be very expensive in Germany. Germans stop at red lights, even at four o’clock in the morning in some godforsaken village.

     Imagine you stop at a restaurant to have dinner in Germany. You’d better not be too thirsty, because no one will offer you water for free. You’re supposed to pay for the things you want. If you want things for free, go home! You won’t find public water fountains in Germany, either.

     Another remarkable thing: in most restaurants, liquors are cheaper than non-alcoholic drinks.

     Finally you get back home, ready for prime time television. When you turn on your TV at 8:15 p.m. in the U.S., you will have missed the beginning of the film you wanted to see. But German prime time starts at 8:15 p.m. At eight o’clock, the TV news programs are on, and they regularly get the highest ratings.

     And in Germany you can see a movie without commercial breaks on public television. But everybody who has a TV has to pay a monthly fee to benefit the two big public television stations. In return, the stations are not allowed to show any commercials after 8 p.m. and before 5 p.m., and show no commercials at all on Sundays.

     Of course Germany has private television, too, and it is financed by commercials. But even then there are only about two or three commercial breaks per hour--much less than in the U.S.

     Lawyers and doctors are not allowed to advertise themselves, not even in a tiny little newspaper ad (maybe the reason is that there is no way you can make a fortune by suing other people in Germany).

     But we Germans do have to tolerate commercials in the movie theatres, where at least a half an hour of ads is shown before a film starts (previews not included).

     You and your friends can tell jokes that are totally politically incorrect in Germany. We even have a late night show host on television named Schmidt who tells jokes about the Polish “who steal cars” (“Today it’s stolen, tomorrow in Poland”) or the Italians “who are all part of the Mafia.”

     Then you go to bed to be prepared for work tomorrow--wherever that may be. Because of the European Union, Europeans are allowed to live and work in all member countries.

     Several areas point up the differences between the German and U.S. ways of doing things.

     Educational System: There is a compulsory school attendance of nine years in Germany. You start school at the age of six or seven at the first grade level in the “Grundschule.” You stay there for four (or five) years and then you have three choices: "Hauptschule" (until 9th grade), "Realschule" (until 10th grade) or “Gymnasium” (until 13th grade).

     These are the basic schools, and it is necessary to choose Gymnasium in order to attend a university. But it’s never too late: it is always possible to catch up if you have got a minor degree, no matter how old you are.

     The German school and university system, including books, is free of charge. Books are usually borrowed from the school instead of being purchased.

     The administration of the educational system lies in the hands of the “Bundeslaender” (states). The federal government has nothing to do with it. However, the Secretaries of Education of the states are constantly harmonizing their policies in order to obtain an equal level of education all over Germany.

     Germans choose the school or university they want to attend--rejection from a school is quite uncommon. There are only a few subjects (like medicine and law), where places are limited because of the huge demand.

     If a student or pupil doesn’t have enough money to attend a certain school (maybe because he cannot afford to pay the rent for an apartment), under certain circumstances, he or she can get financial aid for living expenses from the state. One is only responsible for paying back half of this amount.

     After attending university, you will be ready to start working by the age of 25 to 27.

     Social Security: Altogether, the social security system is the biggest part of the German annual budget (about 30%).

     Pension payments are financed by a “Generation Contract.” This means that the pensions the elderly receive are financed by the fees the working people and the employers are paying into the retirement insurance fund (which is obligatory for everyone). Workers and employers each pay 50% of this fee (right now: 20.3% of salary). The state takes over the fees for unemployed people.

     The amount of money you get with your pension depends mainly on how long you have been working and how much you’ve earned. This pension is regularly adjusted to the inflation.

     A big problem for this system is the declining birth rate; the age pyramid no longer exists.

     Health Insurance: Health insurance is either private or public. However, it is obligatory for everyone. Again the state pays the insurance for the unemployed. The insurance covers all expenses for visiting a doctor, dentist etc. For some expenses you have to make a contribution. You also have to contribute to the costs of drugs.

     The fact that people have to make contributions for certain benefits is widely criticized. Contributions (what American’s call “co-payments”) were introduced a few years ago because health insurance had a huge deficit of several billion marks.

     Cures (conditions that require long-term treatment) are usually covered. When you have to go on a long-term cure program, your job must be kept open for you.

     Unemployment Insurance: If people lose their jobs they still get money from the Unemployment Insurance. The amount received depends on how much was earned before losing the job. At first one gets about 80% of the last salary. The longer one is unemployed, the less one gets. But one always gets something when one follows the rules, which are not very strict: it is mandatory to show up regularly at the employment exchange and--if one is without a job for a certain time--one might have to accept jobs below one’s qualifications.

     This insurance is also financed by working people and employers.

     Welfare Aid: People who never had a job or have been unemployed for many years get Welfare Aid from the state. There is no time limit for receiving these benefits. It is financed by taxes.

     Family policy: Every woman who has a child can stay at home for at least one year; her job must be kept for her during this time (men can take this time, too). There is financial aid for every child (about $150 a month) until the mother starts to work.

     Children are covered by health insurance without paying any extra fees for them.

     Every child has the right by law to get a place in a kindergarten--not everyone gets one, though.

     Health Care: There is a new insurance in Germany to reduce the expenses of other insurances like health care. This care insurance (“Pflegeversicherung”) is obligatory for everyone (2.5% of salary). It gives benefits to people who nurse old or disabled people at home. They can also opt to pay this allotment to care facilities.

     One aim of this insurance was to encourage more people to look after their relatives who need care at home.

     Political System: Whereas the U.S. has a presidential system, Germany is more of a parliamentary system. German voters (who don’t have to register in order to vote) elect the parties for the parliament (“Bundestag”) and the majority there then elects the chancellor. Half of the members of parliament are elected directly, while the other half is elected by voting for the list set up by their party.

     Germany has lots of parties, but only six in the Bundestag. A party must receive five percent or more of votes in an election in order to enter parliament.

     Germany has a president too, but he has no real power. His main duty is to represent the country and its constitution.

     Each state has its own parliament and government, but they are not as independent as the states in America; most power rests in the federal domain.

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This story was published on Jan. 6, 1999.