Should we Brits be more like the Germans?

Blog: UK plc enjoyed the boom, but now the bust is proving pretty hard to cope with. Perhaps teutonic thrift offers our best chance of avoiding another crash?

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 05 Jun 2013
Who wouldn't want to be a German at the moment? Britannia is broke and rudderless, while the Germans are solvent and in the driving seat.

As the rest of Europe wallows in the misery of downturn, the virtuous German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble has announced his government will come very close to balancing the budget in the Federal Republic this year.

The euro crisis has shifted the centre of power in Europe eastwards from Brussels. So Berlin and its values are being imposed on the rest of us.

Unemployment is very low: in December it was 6.8%, the lowest figure since 1991. The fact that the nation has achieved this while absorbing the cost of reunification and improving the dismal Stalinist mess that was East Germany is truly remarkable.

Thus, you might think it's time we all learned How to be More German. Michael Lewis in his entertaining book Boomerang (Penguin) bagged a rare interview with Jorg Asmussen, Germany's deputy minister of finance, who noted of the run-up to 2007's crash:

'There was no credit boom in Germany. Real estate prices were flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. This behaviour is totally unacceptable in Germany. This is what the German people are. This is deeply in German genes. It is perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.'

So what is it about the German way that has made the nation such a success?

My year between school and university was spent in Germany. The only job I could find was in the Dekorationsabteilung of the Freiburg branch of Hertie as a department store shop window dressing assistant. (Probably not the sort of position I was born to hold.) I wasn't actually allowed into the window space: Germany being Germany, you required a PhD in Shop Window Design to enter this hallowed ground.

When I got home famished from a hard day dragging naked mannequins around the store room and telling customers I couldn't sell them any underwear because I wasn't in sales, supper was a meagre ration of cold meats and rye bread. No lashings of steaming wurst with cabbage, washed down with an elegant riesling or a schwabische beer.

The family I lodged with were well-to-do academics and they were kind to me, but they ran a tight ship. In the evening, we all watched dismal German TV, the monotony occasionally broken by Bosco, the boxer dog, silently breaking wind as he slept by the fire. And the family Merc had done a couple of hundred thousand miles.

Germans are quite frugal. Although relatively well off compared with other Europeans, they do not splash money around and rarely go on borrowing sprees to buy things they haven't saved up for.

This national trait is one of the reasons they are not quite so deeply in schtuck as the Brits, the Irish, the Spanish and the Greeks. It's also why, unless the Germans change their ways a little, loosen the purse strings and get a little less austere, the economic Euromisery will continue for a while yet.

In our ‘How to’ special edition, I've penned a piece about we can all be more German.

But if you don’t fancy it and really want to say no, we’ve also got guides on how to seize the opportunity, and managing creatives and irritating assholes. If you don’t know your Google Panda from a Penguin, this will give you a whistlestop tour to killer SEO. Paul Walsh, the CEO of Diageo, tells us the secret to expanding overseas.

Feeling daunted by the above? Here’s how to not worry.

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