August 31, 2021 - 10:08am

Covid lockdowns have upended the global workforce. According to some studies, nearly half of the world’s workers considered a career change and/or quitting their current job over the next year. In Europe, Britain has had the second highest rate of job-leavers with 4.7% of the workforce having left their positions in the wake of lockdowns, topped only by Germany’s 6%. Why are these numbers so high?

Unfortunately, the problem is nothing new. Germany has complained about a shortage of skilled labour for years, a problem now compounded by Covid. And yet it does not seem to accept that there is something amiss with the experience it offers its workers.

Confronted with the fact that Germany is currently estimated to lack around 270,000 qualified workers across different industries, the head of the federal agency that manages job centres across Germany has called for around 400,000 immigrants per year to be admitted into the country rather than wondering what it would take to get existing workers back into their jobs. Given how careful other politicians have been to declare that ‘there will not be another 2015’, referring to the year in which Germany admitted over 2 million people into the country, it is unlikely that a future government would be willing to go down this route.

Perhaps businesses that successfully retain staff can provide some answers. For a number of years now Porsche has ranked among the best German employers. The company scores highly in every category from salary to work culture, from working environment to job satisfaction. One of my friends from university has worked there since we both graduated. He was trained from scratch, specialising in developing cabling systems for the front seats in the Porsche Cayenne, and has since steadily progressed on their career scheme. He earns a good salary, enjoys working with his team and feels appreciated. Importantly, there is a ‘Porsche’ identity. So it’s no surprise that employment at the car company grew in 2020 (as it does most years).

But most German businesses have long bemoaned a lack of skilled labour. While in 2010, only 16% percent of employers saw it as a serious risk to their businesses, this number has risen to over half. But recent studies have also shown that the majority of German workers feel that they are close to being burnt out. They cite time pressure, emotional stress, working additional hours and a bad work culture as reasons. One quarter say that having to be available all the time is the biggest problem. Given that for those under 23, the figure for unhappiness in the job rises to 60%, the problem has become a systemic issue.

Yet, life satisfaction, happiness and a healthy work-life balance seem strangely absent from the campaign trail. On Sunday, a TV debate between the candidates to succeed Merkel largely centred around tax reforms and whether there could be a coalition with the far-Left party Die Linke. Why did worker unhappiness fail to get a single mention?

Sooner or later the government will have to wake up to the scale of the problem. Pre-Covid, around a million people emigrated every year, with Switzerland, Austria, the US and the UK being the top four destinations, according to government statistics.

In light of these figures, it’s astonishing how little German politicians seem to care about their voter’s quality of life. Although this was somewhat understandable all the while Merkel’s longevity guaranteed electoral victory for her party without giving much room to the others, now that the field is wide open and the election very close, it is baffling. Whoever succeeds Merkel in the autumn will sooner or later have to address the Great Resignation. It is more than a Covid-induced economic problem.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.