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Playing card factory in Thuringia, technology location Karlsruhe: In reality, there is not one Germany – but five different ones

Photo: Chris Emil Janßen / IMAGO; Tim Carmele / IMAGO

The mood in Germany is depressed: the economy is shrinking, while it is growing in the other industrialized countries. Prices continue to climb blithely after more than a year of high inflation. Companies complain about energy costs and bureaucracy, citizens about expensive life. Above all this, there is an increasing uncertainty that it will hardly be possible to master the challenges of the future in this state. Because they are enormous: transforming industry in a climate-neutral way, rescuing the automotive industry into the age of e-mobility, somehow compensating for the age-related decline in the labor market. And all this without tearing the country and its society apart.

It's time to take stock. And for a check on the future: How is Germany doing today? And how fit is it for the future?

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Two simple questions to which there are no easy answers. Because in reality, there are currently five different Germanys. In three of them, most people live well or at least solidly. Many of them certainly like to live in the other two – but often not too well.

And in the coming years and decades, the changes are likely to feel very different – depending on where you live and work. There will probably not be one Germany of the future – but rather four Germanys, two of which are very well equipped, but two of which need effort and support.

These are the conclusions of a study by the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which was presented to SPIEGEL in advance. On behalf of the foundation, a research team from the Dortmund Institute for Regional and Urban Development Research (ILS) has investigated how unequal the 400 districts and independent cities in Germany are – now and in terms of their future viability. It was not limited to a single criterion such as income or age structure, as is often the case.

Not one Germany – but five

Instead, the researchers examined a whole range of criteria, for example: How many employees have a university degree? How heavily indebted is the municipality – and how much does it invest in infrastructure? How near or far is the nearest family doctor? What are salaries and poverty rates? Where do many people move – and where do they move away? Where are many patents registered, and where are few? What about the generation of green electricity? Where are workforces ageing? What is the life expectancy, how well is the region supplied with fast internet?

The team combined a total of 21 of these indicators into uniform measuring instruments, such as templates. This makes it possible to identify characteristic similarities between certain districts and cities – patterns that say a lot about the current quality of life and the future viability of a place.

For the current situation, the researchers were able to assign each district and city to one of five patterns on the basis of ten indicators – from dynamic cities to their suburbs and solid middle to structurally weak cities and districts, some of which have been pleasing in catching up.

The following map shows these five Germanys at the beginning of the twenties.

A glance makes it clear that common ideas such as "rich cities, poor country" or "strong West, weak East" are not completely plucked out of thin air – but they are far too simple to adequately describe the complex reality.

This is evident in many of the individual indicators, which are shown in the following descriptions of the five Germanys in summary maps of Germany – and which you can select there as you wish.

The good news first: According to the study, more than four out of five people in Germany – 68.2 out of 83.3 million – live in a prosperous or at least solid region. However, this also means that more than 15 million people experience the problems of structural crises in their immediate living environments.

Germany one:
Dynamic cities – with an increased risk of exclusion
17.6 million inhabitants, 35 districts

Typical: Munich, Hamburg, Berlin – but also Kiel, Mainz and Jena

This is where the modern, the fast, the successful, the cosmopolitan and also the expensive Germany lies – in the less centralised Federal Republic spread over the whole area, also in the East. The metropolises of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne are just as much a part of it as the major economic powers Frankfurt am Main and Stuttgart or the smaller cities of Jena and Kiel. Here, an average of three out of ten employees have a university degree, salaries are well above average (median 3881 euros gross per month), and the infrastructure is excellent: the way to the doctor is short, broadband Internet is available virtually everywhere, cultural, sports and leisure activities are plentiful.

But the success of these cities also has a downside: the enormous social polarization. The risk of poverty is particularly high in these rich cities (more than five percent of the elderly and just under 16 percent of children live on basic security), and precarious areas and affluent neighborhoods are often not far away. The high rents and housing costs are also reflected in a sharp decline in popularity: the dynamic cities are still growing on average (plus 124 net arrivals per year per 100,000 inhabitants), but at a much slower rate than other regions of Germany.

The following map shows the inequalities in Germany in terms of wages, skills and poverty (click through the individual indicators).

Germany two:
Wealthy (surrounding) country
11 million inhabitants, 49 districts

Typical: suburbs around Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt – but also the Alb-Donau district or Coesfeld

The salaries are still a bit higher than in the metropolises (3906 euros gross per month on average), very little poverty, peak life expectancy (82.3 years) and voter turnout (81.6 percent), low-indebted municipalities – and yet a very good infrastructure: The way to the doctor is short, the Internet fast, at least most of the time.

These very pleasant living environments can be found mainly in the south of the republic: around Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Mannheim and Frankfurt. Of course, many of these regions do not manage all this on their own, but benefit from the nearby dynamic cities. But as a result, economic structures have grown that have brought prosperity to the sometimes quite remote areas between these metropolises.

No wonder that many want to live here: 448 people per 100,000 inhabitants move in on average more than leave every year.

Germany three:
Solid center
39.6 million inhabitants, 223 districts

Typical: Lüneburg, Giessen, Lindau – but also Vorpommern-Rügen and Erfurt

In the previous edition of the FES report from 2019, the old West German Federal Republic emerged from this map – as a solid center of Germany, even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, most of the regions of the old Federal Republic of Germany are still included – but now also numerous districts and cities in the east. The entire Great Belt around Berlin, for example, large parts of the Baltic Sea region, cities such as Leipzig or Erfurt. That's good news.

This makes it clear that the first glance at the map is deceptive: it is no longer "the East" where life is less good in Germany. Almost half of the more than 16 million East Germans live either in a dynamic city or in a region of the solid middle.

In this solid middle, everything is largely stable and close to average in the West as well as in the East: salaries (on average 3452 euros gross per month), poverty (elderly: 2.4 percent, children 9.5 percent in basic security), life expectancy, voter turnout and municipal debt. In the meantime, nine out of ten households can also use the Internet quickly. The most problematic thing in these regions is that the proportion of academics in all employees is relatively low for a knowledge society (12.8 percent) and that they are sometimes very remote, which can make the paths to the doctor or a promising job long.

It is precisely this partial remoteness – and the often still affordable apartments – that apparently make them attractive: they are growing faster than all other regions. The bottom line is that an average of 515 more people move in than leave each year.

Germany four:
Cities with a strong industrial background – with structural challenges
6.9 million inhabitants, 38 districts

Typical: Duisburg, Bochum, Pirmasens – but also Bremerhaven and Straubing

They were the engines of the old economic miracle, whether in the Ruhr area, on the Saar, in the Palatinate or on the coast: Essen, Pirmasens, Bremerhaven. But their industries – steel, coal, footwear, shipbuilding – have been in decline for decades, often disappearing altogether.

Since then, these cities have been in a negative cycle: salaries (on average 3328 euros gross per month) and the proportion of academics in the workforce (14 percent) are low by metropolitan standards – but the municipal debt is enormously high (4047 euros per capita on average). The treasurers therefore have hardly any money to counteract the major social problems and their consequences: poverty rates are extremely high (five percent of the elderly and 24 percent of children live in basic security), life expectancy is very low (79.8 years). Many citizens seem to have little trust in politics, or they are simply not interested in it in view of their life situations – voter turnout of 70.3 percent is nowhere lower than here.

However, there are also glimmers of hope: the cities offer a sustainable infrastructure with good accessibility to doctors' surgeries and very good broadband availability – and the exodus has been stopped: While the cities shrank until a few years ago, they are now recording growth again with an average of 330 net arrivals per year.

The following map shows the regional differences in the state's capacity to act, infrastructure and political participation. (Click through the indicators).

Germany five:
Structurally weak areas – with catch-up successes
8.2 million inhabitants, 55 districts

Typical: Uckermark, Rostock, Stendal, Kyffhäuserkreis, Bautzen

It is the rural part of eastern Germany that is still conspicuously structurally weak. Slightly more than half of the East Germans live there – and experience every day what this means: Due to the lack of appropriate companies, the proportion of academics among the employees is very low (11.6 percent) and salaries are by far the lowest in Germany (on average 2841 euros gross per month). Life expectancy (80.1 years) and voter turnout (72.5 percent) are only slightly higher than in the old industrial cities. To the doctor you usually drive quite long here.

However, as gloomy as these figures may look, a closer look reveals positive trends: For example, median salaries have never grown as strongly as here in the past five years (plus 451 euros gross per month on average), and the supply of fast Internet has nowhere been so advanced (plus 40.7 percentage points of households). Life expectancy has risen significantly to 0.4 years, and the proportion of children in basic income support has fallen sharply by 4.3 percentage points. And – a legacy of the continuous employment trajectories of women in the GDR – old-age poverty is virtually unknown here (one percent lives on basic security)

Last but not least, the indebtedness of the municipalities is very low. This gives them the leeway to invest in the future and cushion the consequences of the social problems of structural weakness. Recently, even the decades-long exodus from the rural east seems to have been stopped. Meanwhile, 201 more people per 100,000 inhabitants move to the region every year than others leave.

The following map shows the inequalities in health care and life expectancy in Germany. (Click through the indicators).

The Germany of the future – four spaces

But what does this inventory of prosperity and living conditions say about how well a district or city is positioned for the coming years and decades? A good present does not always mean a bright future – and a difficult present means gloomy prospects.

This is made clear by the researchers' analysis of the future viability of the Federal Republic of Germany: what can be seen here is no longer five, but four of Germany. The team used a total of eleven indicators to determine resilience – i.e. weather resilience in the face of expected economic difficulties and unexpected events.

Here, too, the overall findings can give cause for optimism: At 42.7 million, more than half of the people live in regions that are very well positioned. Another 29 million, at least, don't have much to worry about. However, 11.5 million live in areas that face great difficulties.

Future space one:
Spatial innovation poles
24.2 million inhabitants, 76 districts

Typical: Munich, Hamburg, Berlin – but also North Frisia, Dortmund and Dresden

This is where companies are located, where structures are found that will generate the prosperity of the future: high technology, research and related services, innovations and commercial strength. Yes, it is predominantly the metropolises and large cities that are already among the dynamic regions. In Munich, for example, Google, Apple and Microsoft, three of the world's major Internet companies, have research sites, and they continue to invest in them.

But the core of innovation is also likely to be other regions that are not being thought of for the time being. The North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, is generated here, because it generates a great deal of the renewable energy that a climate-neutral industrial nation will need in the future. Many cities in North Rhine-Westphalia, which are currently struggling with the problems of the decline of old industry, can also become poles of innovation in the future.

What these regions have in common is a high proportion of knowledge occupations among all employment relationships, a high number of newly founded companies and patents. Above all, they have the great advantage that the workforce is still comparatively young: for every 100 employees over the age of 50, there are an average of 64.8 employees under the age of 30. In the coming decades, workers and skilled workers will become one of the scarcest and thus most important resources of the economy. These areas have the advantage that they already have a fairly high proportion of foreigners among the academics employed here – experience has shown that this will continue to attract more highly qualified immigrants in the future.

This map shows the significant differences in age and economic structures (click through the indicators).

Future Space Two:
Resilient Rural Areas
18.5 million inhabitants, 107 districts

Typical: Karlsruhe, Schwäbisch Hall, Berchtesgadener Land – but also Teltow-Fläming, Harburg and Salzgitter

Southern Germany away from the cities, plus some regions in Hesse and near Hamburg and Berlin. These are the areas that, despite their rural location, are very well positioned for the future. The workforce is almost as young as in the cities, and the proportion of academics from abroad is even higher than there. Many people work in knowledge professions – a consequence of the concentration of technology-rich industries in the South.

Above all, however, the municipalities are already investing enormously. An average of 713 euros per capita per year – more than twice as much as in the rest of the rural regions of western Germany. There is no need to worry here.

Future area three:
Regions with partial barriers to adaptation
29 million inhabitants, 142 districts

Typical: Flensburg, Wesel, Kaiserslautern – but also Baden-Baden, Odenwaldkreis and Oldenburg

Basically, this area consists of the regions of West Germany that do not belong to the two carefree future areas. Here, too, residents do not have to panic about the coming years – the economy is very diverse, which means that crises in individual sectors can be absorbed or mitigated almost everywhere by the other sectors. Actually, almost all indicators – from the proportion of knowledge professions to the start-ups of companies and the registration of patents to the age structure of the workforce – are in line with the German average.

However, there is a risk that the infrastructure will not be able to meet the challenges of the future: the fibre-optic expansion is not very far, the care of small children is inadequate, and many places are difficult to reach by train. It is worrying that the investments of the municipalities are lower than anywhere else in Germany at 343 euros per capita.

The map shows how different the infrastructure is in terms of investment, rail connection, renewable energies and fast internet in Germany. (Click through the indicators).

Future Area Four:
Regions with Special Structural Challenges
11.5 million inhabitants, 75 districts

Typical: Uckermark, Wittenberg, Vogtlandkreis – but also Olpe and Kronach

Despite some positive developments, rural East Germany – and individual West German regions such as Olpe or the district of Kassel – have a whole host of weaknesses that could make the future difficult. But one of them is by far the most threatening: demography.

The workforce is alarmingly old: for every 100 employees over the age of 50, there are only 39.5 employees under the age of 30. And there are hardly any skilled workers from abroad. Only 8.6 percent of the employed academics are non-Germans – and where so far hardly any highly qualified immigrants have been attracted, it will be more difficult to convince them in the future than elsewhere. Especially since the number of newly founded companies and the number of patents applied for is well below average. In addition, both the supply of fibre optic networks and the accessibility by rail are poor. Despite the low level of debt, municipalities are also investing relatively little.

The only thing that is really good here is the very strong expansion of childcare. The map of Germany shows this.

However, the map also shows how low the proportion of highly qualified foreign skilled workers is in rural East. If these regions want to maintain the upward trend of recent years, they must do better.