Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new survey reveals optimistic attitudes across Germany's capital, though there are still distinct differences between Easterners and Westerners.
Berliners are content, feel good about the future—and they seem to be getting younger. These are some of the key findings of a major survey, released this week, that looks at how citizens of Germany’s capital feel about themselves, their city and their future. Published by the Hertie Foundation, its results show that overall, Berliners seem confident that their city is moving in the right direction.
It’s not entirely blue sky over Berlin, however. The survey reveals that, even 25 years after the Berlin wall fell, most Berliners feel there is still a clear difference between Easterners and Westerners. Berliners are also far more politically disaffected than other Germans and more likely to be living near the poverty line.
Berliners are getting happier
Berliners are generally satisfied with their lives, the survey suggests. Asked on a scale of one to five how satisfied they were, no district of the city reported average answers below a healthy 3.76. Interestingly, Berlin’s happiness map reveals a different side to the city from the one usually portrayed when charting its rise as Europe’s capital of cool. The happiest area (with a satisfaction score of 4.15) was the suburban working and lower middle class western borough of Spandau, far off the tourist beat and arguably the area of Berlin that has changed least in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the least satisfied Berliners were in centrally located Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the city’s youngest borough and a place that’s home to both newcomers to the city and a long-standing Turkish German population. It’s easy enough to hypothesize reasons for lower levels of satisfaction here. Many living in the area are poor and, being younger, less well rooted, while the area is under general stress from rapid, displacement-inducing rent rises.
The bigger picture nonetheless is that, compared to 2009, satisfaction is up across the board, probably thanks to the city’s improving economy. This upbeat trend continued when looking at the future. Asked how they saw Berlin’s path over the next five years, 58 percent were optimistic and 11 percent very optimistic.
Berliners are not your average Germans
As you’d expect from any big city, Berlin lures in a population whose social background, values and aspirations differs somewhat when compared to those of Germany as a whole. Divided into ten social groupings by the survey, Berlin has a lower than average percentage of residents belonging to groups classified (in order of size) as “the bourgeois middle,” “traditional” and “conservative, established.” These groups make up 31 percent of Berliners, as opposed to 38 percent nationally.
By contrast, the city has a higher proportion of “hedonists” (18 percent), and also a larger “mobile avant-garde” (9 percent), a group containing educated, geographically and upwardly mobile younger people. This group is still easily outnumbered by “the precariat,” people who’s limited means make daily life a struggle, who represent 12 percent of Berlin’s population. Overall, these three groups together form 41 percent of Berlin’s population, compared to 31% nationally. Interestingly Berlin’s levels of “liberal intellectuals” and “social ecologists” are entirely in keeping with national averages (7-8 percent), suggesting that if Berlin genuinely is a liberal and green stronghold, it isn’t any more so than the country as a whole.
For people exposed to the myth of liberal, decadent Berlin (a myth not entirely without foundation, of course) perhaps the striking thing here is that Berlin’s differences from the German average are actually fairly muted. In truth, the part of Berlin which is most discussed in travel guides, trend pieces and even news articles is actually a strip running north to south through the city’s center. Beyond this area, much of Berlin looks like any other urban area in Germany, both aesthetically and politically, a fact the survey makes clear.
Berlin is getting younger—or is it?
In a country where the average age is 44.1, Berliners are a relatively younger lot, with an average age of 42.9. This age has been dropping gradually over the past few years, in fact, as younger people from both Germany and outside the country flock to the city to study in its universities, enjoy its lively social scene and (compared to much of western Europe) still pay fairly low rents.
That’s the most recent twist in the story, at least. Look at the figures long-term and you see that the real trend has actually been in the opposite direction. In 1990, the city’s average age was 39.1 years, 3.8 years younger than now. In the years following reunification, high unemployment actually saw a flood of young Berliners leave the city—significantly, it’s the lower-income, far eastern borough of Marzahn Hellersdorf that has aged most dramatically. Here the average resident is now 13.3 years older than was the case in 1990. Overall, the last 25 have shown a flood of young people pushed away from Berlin by high unemployment, a trend that has only recently started to reverse. So while the current trend is positive, Berlin still has a long way to go.
Berliners are politically disaffected
By German standards, that is. While a remarkable 70 percent of Germans are happy with the way democracy functions in their country, in Berlin only 35 percent of people feel the same way. There could be various reasons for this. Berlin has long had higher than average unemployment and a greater appetite for radical politics than the rest of the country. At the same time, the city’s local government—whose powers are broadly equivalent to those of a U.S. state —has been involved in several screw-ups, mostly notably the apparently endless saga of the city’s still unfinished new airport.
Berlin is still divided
The wall may have come down 25 years ago, but it still draws a line in Berliners’ heads. While 36 percent of Berliners now acknowledge no difference between Easterners and Westerners, a larger 46 percent said that the different communities had little to do with each other. Easterners felt the difference more strongly, but only by a single percentage point. This is still a marked change from 2009, when only 24 percent of Berliners made no distinction between Easterners and Westerners.
For non-Berliners, it should be made clear that this oft talked of “mauer im kopf” (“wall in the head”) remains mental partly because its physical signs have been so totally effaced. Not only is it hard in many places now to trace the wall’s former course, there has also been large-scale migration of Westerners into Eastern districts, in Central Berlin at least. The amalgamation of formerly separate boroughs straddling the wall has also helped to kick over its traces, but Eastern and Western Berliners still often socialize separately. They can also recognize each other quite quickly, be it through regional accents, through names (English names like Kathleen are considered stereotypically Eastern) and cultural references—Buzzfeed Germany is currently running “Do you remember the 80s?” pieces with separate Eastern and Western editions.