Bye Bye Deutschland More and More Leave Germany Behind

Faced with poor job prospects, high taxes and an intrusive bureaucracy, more and more Germans are choosing to emigrate. Most of those who leave, though, are highly qualified -- which could mean devastating economic consequences.

By Julia Bonstein, , Sebastian Matthes and Irina Repke

Frank Pigorsch was unemployed in Germany. Until he found a job in Calgary that is. He now lives there with his family.
Knut Gärtner

Frank Pigorsch was unemployed in Germany. Until he found a job in Calgary that is. He now lives there with his family.

They are fed up, truly fed up. Fed up with the constant bickering over the costs of wage benefits, social reforms, elimination of subsidies, store closing hours and all the other symbols of a country stuck in bureaucratic and legislative gridlock.

They are tired of living in country where landing a job is like playing the lottery, a country where not even half of citizens live from gainful employment and a country in which even academics in their mid-40s are already considered problem cases when it comes to job placement. In other words, they are fed up with living in a country where all opportunities already seem to be taken: opportunities to succeed in one's career, to own property and to achieve prosperity.

That is why they want to leave -- as fast as they can, in fact -- and move to places where they believe there is hope for a better future. One of those places is the Third World -- India, to be more precise. René Seifert, 35, still raves about Bangalore, India's booming metropolis, where young computer programmers spend their nights crowding into the city's dance clubs and where, during the days, cars share the streets with rickshaws and cows. And where, despite the seeming chaos, every thing has its place. "I'm fascinated by the pulse of Asia, the upbeat prevailing mood and the wealth of opportunities," he raves.

With a few thousand euros in starting capital Seifert, a businessman and former head of entertainment at Internet portal Lycos Europe, founded a company in Bangalore that provides accounting services for mid-sized German companies. He is so enamored of India that he can hardly imagine ever wanting to return to Munich. "Things are really starting to move here," he says.

"Why stay in Cottbus?"

Frank Naumann, a 38-year-old doctor, fled to Austria with his wife because of "miserable working conditions at home." German doctors, he says, "are in demand from North Cape" -- in northern Norway -- "to the Emirates, so why should I have stayed in Cottbus?"

Naumann worked at a hospital in the eastern German city of Cottbus for six years without ever being offered a permanent contract. Because his chances of being promoted to senior physician were so uncertain, Naumann and his wife decided to move to the Salzburg region, where he now has permanent contract as a senior physician at a hospital in the Austrian town of Schwarzach. Back in Cottbus, doctors are working multiple shifts because the hospital suffers from a shortage of qualified personnel.

Almost everyone in Germany these days knows people like Seifert or Naumann -- people who have decided to make a fresh start in the middle of their lives. Saying goodbye is difficult for almost anyone, but at some point the frustrations and the yearning for a new future become too overwhelming to ignore. Rarely have so many Germans decided to leave it all behind -- their houses and properties, parents and aunts, friends and co-workers. According to the German Federal Office of Statistics, 144,815 Germans left the country last year, a jump of almost 25 percent over 2002. At the same time, fewer and fewer Germans are returning from abroad. The most recent figure is 128,052. For the first time in a generation, more Germans are emigrating than returning. And these are only the official figures.

"Overseas is calling!" More and more doctors are leaving Germany out of disgust with the job conditions here. This image is from a doctors strike this spring.

"Overseas is calling!" More and more doctors are leaving Germany out of disgust with the job conditions here. This image is from a doctors strike this spring.

There are probably just as many who move away without bothering to notify officials in their local municipalities. And those who go are no longer only social dropouts, those seeking a tax haven or celebrities. Nowadays doctors are moving to Norway, engineers to the United States and agricultural experts to New Zealand. Germany is becoming a net exporter of people.

The typical emigrant is in his prime, between the ages of 25 and 45, has had a decent education and is already well into his career. "Those who go are often highly motivated and well-educated," says Stefanie Wahl of the Institute of the Economy and Society in Bonn. But immigrants are a different story altogether. "The people who come here are usually poor, unskilled and have little education."

A paucity of immigrants

This is precisely the problem. Not only are more people turning their backs on Germany, but those who go are typically the country's best and brightest. According to a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), hardly any other industrialized nation is losing so many academics to other countries. The percentage of emigrants with doctorates is 10 times as high as it is in the general population. And half of emigrants are younger than 35. "This is a warning sign," Ludwig Georg Braun, the president of the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said recently.

Meanwhile, the number of new immigrants is on the decline, and those who do choose to make Germany their home are often not exactly the kinds of workers companies actively seek out. While countries like Australia and Canada restrict immigration mainly to the kinds of people they can truly use, all it takes for someone to immigrate into Germany is proof that they already have family there or are Eastern Europeans of German descent.

It is failed policy with far-reaching consequences. Hamburg economist Thomas Straubhaar warns of what he calls a "DDR effect" if the country loses those who are the most flexible and open to innovation as happened to former East Germany. "Unless we do something about it," he says, "this country's problems will become more severe than almost anyone can imagine today."

The country's pension system is losing contributors just as vast numbers of baby-boomers are gradually entering retirement. The demographic crisis is getting worse, especially when one considers that deaths outnumbered births by 144,000 in 2005, and that this gap is continuing to widen.

Beyond the social system, the emigration of the country's elites represents a loss to the German economy as well. The government spends untold thousands of euros for the education and training of every biologist, computer scientist or engineer. And then these specialists become frustrated and leave the country.

Of the just under 12,000 students who enter medical school in Germany each year, fewer than 7,000 end up working in hospitals or private practice. Of those who find employment, about half of them find it outside of Germany, according to the Marburg Bund, the trade association of German hospital doctors. Training these 3,000 or so doctors who end up emigrating costs the government about €600 million -- an expense that ultimately benefits patients in Great Britain, Norway and Switzerland.

Fifty-seven thousand Germans in Austria

Ultimately, such an export of intellectual wealth weakens Germany as a site for investment. Many companies already lack specialized workers today, and 16 percent of German companies are unable to fill all their positions because of a lack of qualified candidates. There are about 7,000 unfilled engineering jobs in the machine building industry alone.

"We cannot simply look on as precisely those people emigrate who are valuable, well educated and motivated," says DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, referring to what human resource experts call the "brain drain." Zetsche believes that the solution lies in the government changing its approach to immigration policy. "We should encourage people to immigrate who can help us solve our problems."

What was once an exotic dream has become a realistic option for many planning their lives. Three million Germans already live abroad today. Germany, the world champion when it comes to exports, began by moving its manufacturing facilities overseas, followed by outsourcing its jobs to lower-wage countries. Now its citizens are following suit.

Some are motivated by a yen for adventure in faraway places. Others are simply fed up with German idiosyncrasies, such as the propensity to constantly come up with new rules where none were necessary in the first place. But the most important motivation is often economic, as Germans facing a lack of career opportunities at home seek to build new lives in places where their skills are still in demand. And that is the case in a surprisingly large number of places in the world.

Australia has launched a campaign to recruit trained professionals from abroad, from hairdressers to mining engineers. New Zealand is also actively looking for qualified workers. But most emigrants are hesitant to move so far away; for them starting anew in a neighboring country is daring enough.

More than 57,000 Germans now work in Austria. And Switzerland is becoming increasingly popular: One in 10 emigrants opts for Germany's southern neighbor, and in 2005 Switzerland was the top destination for Germans emigrating abroad. Danish job recruiters even make the trip to job fairs in Germany to recruit sought-after German professionals.


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