A Tale of Two Generations

Thursday, April 30, 1998

More than 10,000 kilometers separate California from Germany, the country I have studied throughout my professional life, and there's a nine-hour time difference. It's not easy for me to telephone my young German godchildren, Alexander, Victoria, and Charlotte, so they send me e-mail. I think about them often and about the country where they are growing up. I think about their future, about the communication revolution of which they are a part, and about how it will affect their lives. For them the computer, the cellular telephone, and the fax machine are part of getting up in the morning. They don't think about the Twilight of the Gods over Germany. They don't have time. They are too busy thinking about the world they are shaping in Germany and in Europe.

That is hardly to say that Germany faces no problems. On the contrary, the country faces a wide area of problems--serious problems.

Listening to a group of senior German bankers, I had the impression that Germany is an absolute mess.

Even from here in California they are plain to see. Germany is overtaxed, but the Bundestag seems incapable of passing what every German agrees is much-needed tax reform. Germany is overregulated. Germany has the shortest working hours and the longest vacations. It has the oldest students and the youngest retirees. It has an educational system that is in serious need of change.

It has a welfare system that in some cases pays an unemployed person more than someone who wants to earn an honest living by working. Labor costs are astronomical. Unemployment is at a postwar high, but that has much less to do with jobs and much more to do with politics.

Germany is overgoverned by a parliament that passes laws interfering in almost every aspect of private life. Why should Germans worry about the Euro replacing the German deutsche mark, if the average German can only keep fifty pfennig of every mark he makes? The welfare state is out of control.

Now, some people would argue that the above litany of problems represents a disaster in the making. Others would call it a list of challenges. It so happens that older Germans see disaster looming, young Germans, challenges.

The Old

This divide was clear at a meeting I attended in Berlin last autumn, where most of those present were over forty-five. The subject was "The German Model: Loss of Balance--Is Germany Capable of Reform?" The occasion was the "Fifth Bankers' Forum on Politics and Society." The place was the magnificent castle of Niederschoenhausen, in what used to be called East Berlin.

We met in the same room German leaders met in during the unification debates of 1990. The room was full of symbols--of dictatorship, of injustice, of failure but also of success--for it was not the chairman of the former East German Council of State who was opening this meeting but Martin Kohlhaussen, president of the German Bankers' Federation. Niederschoenhausen was no longer part of the Soviet sector of Berlin but part of Germany's future capital. Germany was united--and in 1998 all Germans, for only the third time since 1945, will vote in free elections to determine who will lead their country into the next century as a member of the European Union. If that isn't reason for optimism, what is? But the discussion was far from optimistic.

This year all Germans, East and West, will vote in free elections for only the third time since 1945. If that isn't reason for optimism, what is?

Participating were journalists, bankers, scholars, political figures, and labor leaders who agreed in principle on one thing--that if Germany is going to be competitive in the future, Germans must recognize that the state cannot solve everybody's problems. With few exceptions no one in that room looked at the future as an opportunity. By the end of the day I had the impression that Germany was an absolute mess, the German economy beyond saving, and the Germans themselves completely incapable of controlling their own country.

The Young

I think by contrast of the young German leaders I know--in business, in the arts, in the universities, in the labor markets. These intelligent, articulate men and women in Berlin are building the New York of Central Europe. Visit, for example, Stadtmitte (the center of the city) or Prenzlauer Berg (in former East Berlin) or Charlottenburg (in former West Berlin), or see the restoration of the Marble Palace in Potsdam. Energy and movement are everywhere.

Consider just one young German from Bonn. Marianne Kneuer is thirty-three years old and a member of the planning staff for the president of Germany. When she visited me at my office at Stanford, she told me she had just designed a web site for the office of the president of Germany. We brought it up on the computer screen. With this beautifully done creation, she had opened up an entirely new way for German citizens to communicate with the federal president--and vice versa. To say that I was impressed would be a gross understatement; she is a good reason to have faith in Germany's future. (Incidentally, you can find the web site she designed at www.bundespraesident.de.)

In Berlin the younger generation is building the New York of central Europe. Energy and movement are everywhere.

Consider another young German, a businessman in his thirties named Magnus Graf Lambsdorff. At a dinner to which he invited me last fall, Lambsdorff had gathered a group of young Germans to discuss German foreign policy. (A professor from the Universitaet der Bundeswehr and I, at age fifty-five, were the oldest in the room.) No atmosphere of pessimism pervaded that group; on the contrary, there was a healthy concern with how to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that lay ahead.

What does all this mean for Germany? And for Germany's friends, neighbors, and allies?

Europe is tied to Germany as Germany is tied to Europe. A European Union of free trade, healthy competition, thriving stock markets, and private enterprise will produce a strong Germany and a strong Europe. Yet this assumes that Germany's political leaders will lead. If they don't, they had better get out of the way because the younger generation is going to do it for them.