04/29/2008 06:19 PM

A Day in the Life

How Germans Work and Take their Lunch

Long gone are the days when Germans toiled away on workbenches and assembly lines. Today, most are slaves to their computers. For most, though, the work week has gotten shorter over the years. One thing that hasn't changed about the workday are eating habits: Most German workers hit the company cafeteria at noon sharp.

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a week-long series. You can read the introduction here and the third part here.

8 a.m. How the Germans work

The days when most German workers spent their day on workbenches or assembly lines are long gone. Today, they sit at computer screens with a keyboard and a mouse. Only about one-third of workers still soldier their way through the day by hammering, welding or turning screws. The others are busy typing.

They sit in offices navigating the Internet, putting together presentations, reports and doing calculations on flat-screen monitors. They sit alone, in pairs and in groups. They are surrounded by telephones, printers, fax machines and scanners. Artificial light brightens the room and file folders are stacked behind them.

More than half of the 12 million women with regular jobs in Germany work in five professional groups: 3.1 million sit in offices, 1.1 million work as nurses or physicians' assistants, 1 million are sales clerks and a further million work as teachers or providing childcare. Another half-million are cleaners.

Young girls tend to dream of becoming teachers, doctors, nurses or singers, while boys want to become train drivers, police or soldiers. Or computer scientists. But reality looks more like this: Women tend to become office clerks, physicians' assistants, hairdressers or waitresses. And the men? Fewer and fewer are choosing to become automobile mechanics, painters, electricians and carpenters. And a good 40 percent of all women and men believe you have to suck up to your boss in order to move up the ladder.

Of the 35 million people in Germany who work for companies, only about 12 percent feel motivated within their companies, two-thirds get by at work by doing the bare minimum and one out of five is so dispirited that they have entered a kind of mental resignation. The success of the German economy is carried on the shoulders of a minority. In addition, Germans this year wasted 26 of a total average of 192 working days with unnecessary administrative work and through insufficient consultation with other workers. That represents a waste of €160 billion ($250 billion), or about seven percent of the country's gross domestic product.

If you include part-time workers in that figure, the average German works about 30.3 hours per week, down from 41.4 hours in 1960.

How the Germans Take their Lunch

12 p.m. How the Germans eat lunch

Frank Bornkessel says it's impossible to change Germans' eating times. The age-old 12 p.m. appointment will remain an eternal German habit -- it just can't be changed. Bornkessel has tried. He wrote e-mails to co-workers noting that lunch isn't any worse at 1 p.m., that the selection is no smaller, but that cafeteria lines are definitely shorter. Still, nothing's changed. Eighty percent of the meals sold in the employee cafeteria go through the cash register between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The average worker spends about 15 minutes eating a meal, he estimates.

Bornkessel, 48, runs the central kitchen at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart. Close to 40,000 people work here, and about 60 percent eat at the 11 on-site company restaurants. Each year, the company sells 3.6 million meals, and Bornkessel is an expert on what the German masses like to eat when they hit the cafeteria at lunchtime. In this regard, there's been a dramatic change over the past 100 years. On average, each German consumes almost twice as much meat as in the year 1900 -- about 87 kilograms per year, of which 50 kilograms is pork. The average German consumes one-third less bread than a hundred years ago, or about 86 kilograms, and only a quarter of the potatoes, 68 kilograms. But the average German also eats substantially more eggs -- 206 per year -- more fruit and vegetables and a greater number of tropical fruits.

Women tend to be more concerned about nutrition than men. They are more than twice as likely to be vegetarian (2.2 percent of all women compared to a mere 1 percent of men), they eat more wholefoods or Hay's diets. Close to two-thirds of women know what a pro-biotic yoghurt is, compared to just 50 percent of men. And 80 percent of all women can give an accurate definition of the meaning of the organic label on food packaging, compared to just 68 percent of men.

Before going to work for Daimler, Bornkessel was a chef at a five-star hotel. For the past 12 years, he's been in the cafeteria business. Bornkessel says "food is a motivating factor," and variety is important. You can't just eat pork -- you also have to think about your health, especially in a country where 37 million people are overweight and 4 million diabetic. One in three Germans is out of shape, and nutrition-related illnesses cost the medical system an estimated €70 billion per year, almost one-third of all health costs.

Expectations about food are also increasing, Bornkessel says. In the old days, people ate to satiate their hunger. Today, eating is also a matter of conviction. The willingness of Germans to fork out more money for better food, though, has not risen, and the cheapest meal at the Mercedes plant costs €1.60.

The top five dishes at Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart have gone unchanged over the years, defying every fashion trend and nutrition debate: currywurst (curry ketchup-smothered, sliced sausage), schnitzel, Cordon bleu, spaghetti, thick lentils with belly of pork and sausage and spätzle (German egg pasta). "Lentils," Borkessel says, "are the absolute highlight." In fact, the company's employee council stipulates that lentils be offered on the menu at least twice every five weeks because of demand. The most unpopular item on the menu?

Nobody likes celery, he says.

It's just after 12 p.m. and Bornkessel is standing in the cafeteria above the carmaker's central kitchen. Hundreds of people pass by with trays in their hands at the peak of rush hour lunch traffic. For his part, Bornkessel prefers to take his lunch around 1:15 or 1:20 p.m. For a full half-hour -- and totally relaxed.


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