Melting Pot

Immigrants Benefit Germany's Economy

Junge Ausländer beginnen Ausbildung
Industry needs more diversity.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s economy needs immigrants, but the country is struggling to adequately welcome and integrate them.

  • Facts


    • Germany received 1.08 million immigrants in 2012, while 700,000 people left the country.
    • Without more immigrants, the country’s working population will fall by up to 40 percent by 2050.
    • Some 68 percent of Germans believe the economy needs qualified immigrants.
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Sometimes, a revolution sneaks up quietly – especially if it comes from above, in this case, the German chancellor.

During the chancellor’s integration summit, Angela Merkel discussed how newcomers could more easily become part of German society and declared that the term “integration” is out of date. German society needs to become more open-minded about immigration, she said, and view it as “an opportunity and enrichment.” In the future, the chancellor’s office will try to rebrand the annual event and is seeking a different name for the next summit.

Words, of course, are superficial when it comes to confronting such a challenge. But in rejecting the term “integration,” Chancellor Merkel is taking the first steps in modernizing German immigration policy. It is a kind of cultural revolution almost equal in scope to the current debate in Germany over cleaner, more sustainable energy. There, too, the chancellor reached conclusions in a suddenly changed political setting – and found great support from an unsettled population.

Nuclear energy was no longer a political option in Germany after the 2011 disaster in Fukushima. The decision to abandon nuclear power might have been spontaneous, but in principle it was logical. What is less certain is whether the chancellor can expect understanding over big changes in how Germany integrates its immigrant population.

Uncertainty among Germans is unmistakable on the subject of poverty-driven immigration and immigration from Eastern Europe. Wasn’t it enough to declare that guest workers in Germany were here to stay and not simply “guests”? Didn’t the parties only recently have to explain a reality that could no longer be ignored – that Germany is in fact already an attractive target for immigrants?

Germany needs more workers and skilled professionals. If it doesn’t get them, the population will decrease by 20 million by 2050, and the working population by as much as 40 percent, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation. But this is not broadly accepted. Germany is a “reluctant immigration country.”

Diversity better exploits people’s economic and creative potential. It enables more innovation and higher productivity.

According to historian Klaus Blade, the divide on immigration runs between mostly young people, for whom cultural diversity is a natural reality of everyday life, and those who feel threatened by cultural change. The latter are more susceptible to xenophobic slogans. Looking around at Germany’s European neighbors is enough to show how right-wing populist parties can achieve great political success by demonizing foreigners.

These sentiments at least have not thrived in Germany. According to a poll by the public broadcaster ARD, 68 percent of Germans believe the nation’s economy needs qualified immigrants. And 46 percent believe immigration generally has more benefits than drawbacks for Germany. This is confirmed by most experts in the public debate: The labor market and especially the social security systems profit significantly from new residents.

Nonetheless, the chancellor’s statement is more than brave. With her almost terse reference, she has turned German immigration policy on its head. Not only should newcomers adapt to their new home in language and culture, but Germans must also finally change: No more complacency, and no more self-righteousness! Cultural open-mindedness is not just something you practice on vacation. Diversity must be more than the joys of a restaurant’s international menu. To put it bluntly: Diversity and cultural openness begin at people’s own doorstep.

So do we need integration courses for Germans? This is not such an absurd idea. Germany should at least be better prepared for new residents. The business community has long shown how it’s done. It is not about integrating “foreign” employees into a German business culture. Many companies, like Evonik Industries, have created a complete environment of diversity.

We are not talking about a loose tolerance that shows other ways of life. Nor is this about “integration” in the sense of subordinating ethnic groups to a “dominant culture” of any kind. Above all, this is about learning empathy. And not just when dealing with the exotically different, but with everyone, wherever they come from. More openness to all things new will lead directly to more empathy in personal contacts.

It can be learned. And the result? Where there is more empathy, there is better cooperation. And diversity promotes innovation.

German managers are well thought-of because they work in a reliable, efficient, straightforward and structured manner. These traits are typically German stereotypes that, in themselves, are no guarantee of success. Successful global players – from huge German industries to its small- and mid-sized companies – complement these traits with cultural sensitivity and social intelligence.

The claim that immigrants benefit more from Germany than the other way round is wrong.

Only insiders in local markets understand local peculiarities and habits and can bring their experiences to bear in global corporations. This diversity better exploits people’s economic and creative potential. It enables more innovation and higher productivity. That’s the secret of Germany’s success as an exporter, which in 2013 was way ahead of China with the world’s biggest export surplus.

Some neighbors in Europe feel threatened by this economic power. This is just one more reason for politicians not to behave like moralistic know-it-alls and instead invest more effort in Europe’s integration. So far, however, the opportunities and risks of the crisis in Europe are very unequally distributed – and not always to Germany’s detriment.

This is seen in the migration of people. Those who come to Germany from Poland and the crisis-affected nations of Spain and Portugal are mostly young, motivated and well-educated. German companies welcome these qualified people with open arms. They have been recruiting young workers from all over the European Union for some time now. There are agencies that recruit skilled people and even deal with the administrative paperwork for new arrivals.

The claim that immigrants benefit more from Germany than the other way round is wrong. That’s why German business should give Chancellor Merkel wholehearted support in her efforts to change the culture gradually. Not just silently, but actively – by speaking to all parts of society. This is not just pseudo-philosophical humbug, but a necessary approach to the question of what Germany expects from integration.

This is about putting away the traditional “we’ll stay here and you stay there” mentality. And it is about understanding what German identity is all about. The fallacy of Germany’s integration debate is that it calls for boundaries instead of accepting enrichment. Yet the country has always been diverse. The Ruhr district alone, a one-time mining region in the west of Germany, is a 180-year-old success story of immigration. Everyone there arrived at some point from somewhere else: It is a real “melting pot.”

Of course, many immigrants in the Ruhr region still maintain their traditions. At the same time, something completely new was born from the cultural exchange in this former coal-mining district – an independent culture, experienced together; an exciting dynamic of diversity and community.

Learning from this, the chancellor should link the upcoming minimum wage with an immigration policy package. This package should not deter, but rather invite people to take part in the country’s growth and share in its prosperity.

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