Germany's Class System
A common complaint of older generations is that things were better in the "olden days". Although we young wipper snappers may scoff as we illegally download yet another multimillion pound Hollywood blockbuster, while reading twitter on four different screens, the old folks may have a point. It was certainly easier to work out which part of society you belonged to. If you had a powdered wig, understood Greek proverbs and were terminally inbred you were probably in the aristocracy or at least adjacent to it. If you happened to be getting shot to pieces on a random European battlefield, liked potatoes and didn't know what an orange was you were more than likely in the lower classes. Life was simple and easy to understand.
The class system is still one way that people can understand the UK in 2017, for UK residents there are inherent signals that differentiate groups. These signals clearly evidence what social standing a person is or perhaps wishes to be. Clothes, personal possessions, language and even size of television can be instant signals of social status. Yet, understanding the British class system can still be bewildering. A designer handbag doesn’t always signify higher social status and dodgy tattoos don’t necessarily signify lower class. Sometimes we can recognise instantly someone’s social status and sometimes it takes a little time to accumulate evidence. For many British people social status is of no real importance personally, but walk down the street and they will easily identify which class a person fits into.
Trying to explain the nuances of class signals to my German friends and colleagues is almost impossible as they themselves believe Germany has no class system. Most of those I speak to understand the traditional concepts of class in the UK, but that is perhaps as far is it goes. There is still some confusion over the British class system for Germans and thanks to two sociologists, the whole mess has become even more complex. A report from 2013 concluded there is no longer simply lower, middle and upper classes, we now have as many as seven different class brackets with groups such as “Technical Middle Class” and “New Affluent Workers”. In addition, people can be considered “Emergent service workers” or at the bottom of the heap “The Precariat”. Now, even if you are a native or non-native resident of the UK, it has become extremely complex to quantify.
Thankfully for those of us with class confusion, there are people who simplify the process of ascertaining which class someone is in. One of the greatest minds ever to come out of reality television, the eminent bigot Katie Hopkins, former contestant on the Apprentice, advocate of gun boat solutions to humanitarian crises and keeper of great wisdom, has bestowed upon us a simple way to identify the scummy, unwashed lower classes via the complex decoding of a child's name. Hopkins suggested on a mid-morning chat show that children with lower class names, like Tyler, were to be considered untouchables and thus never to be allowed to frequent her own child's circle of friends. Diluting the class pool was not something a right minded parents should ever attempt. I thank the gods for giving me another reason to dislike this overly self-important woman.
Oddly though, she was making a valid point in that you could quite easily tell a person’s social standing from their name. The real problem, as I see it, is the implication that children and even adults who come from a different class shouldn't socialize with each other. Surely this is the real problem. I know that most men called Tim or women called Persephone are doubtless coming from a different background to me, but I'm hardly going to shun them because they have what some might consider posh names. Personally, I think that's half the problem with Britain's class system. It's rare that people outside certain social classes ever mix, and if they do its only through some achingly uncomfortable professional or social occasion where they're forced to share the same air. With neither really understanding the other both parties can often leave with highly negative views, partly based on their perceived social status.
This can start from an early age, with children being segregated due to the financial support of their parents. If you can afford it, your children can be sent to separate nurseries that are slightly more expensive and later on to schools that charge exorbitant fees. Those who can’t afford these options might find themselves slowly restricted with regards to educational options.
Private education exists in Germany, and in some states they have a universal comprehensive school system. In many states though, children find themselves in one of the three levels of secondary education; Gymnasium, Realschule and Mittelschule. Depending on results, children will be given places in one of these three levels, although recently parents have been given the opportunity to select schools regardless of result. If this sound familiar to British readers, it is because it is very similar to the Grammar school system that has recently been discussed and tabled for a possible return.
This does allow children from different backgrounds to come together and even achieve real academic success. However, it would not be dishonest for me to say that the majority of children in the lowest level of secondary education come from some of the lowest earning families. There are ways in which children from the bottom rung can reach the top and from there head to university, but that is not an easy path. Even if they do manage it, they are still to a certain extent stigmatised by the experience. Then again, university is not necessarily the pinnacle it appears to be in the UK. Many of the people I work with have come through technical colleges, not universities, but have an excellent education and equal chances to achieve their professional goals.
That is not to say that Germany is some kind of utopia, it is still suffering from a wealth gap. How large the gap and how much impact it has is a debate that continually rages. Although the gap hasn’t widened significantly since 2010, the richest 10% still own 60% of the total net assets. There is some room for manoeuvre though and it isn’t unthinkable for some to go from a low income background to a high income background through their careers.
All this does suggest that Germany has some semblance of a class system in place. Although Germans may feel they have little use for a class structure, they have gradually developed their own. If you happen to be European or from a European background your options are very much open. The real division in Germany is between Germans/Europeans and non-German/European immigrants. These groups have very similar issues to the classes of Britain, in that they rarely mix in social groups. This is considered one of the biggest reasons for the failure of integration. Like the lower and upper classes, all these groups carry stereotypes of the other that leads to a further lack of integration. Recently I had the displeasure to experience a conversation between people I knew quite well, which was a carbon copy of the argument laid out by Katie Hopkins. The only major difference was that the lambasted lower class in this group was non-German. Although I would argue that this group was an exception to the general openness of Germans, it showed that some people will always make more effort to be ignorant than they do to understand. What Katie Hopkins and this group succeeded in doing is showing that it's perfectly possible, in the 21st century, to live in the "good old days" of inherent racism and class stereotypes.