Germany is probably the only country that could produce a hip-hop hit about the buzz-killing nature of full employment. Yet Rostock-born rapper Marteria’s song Kids, which bitterly laments the boring, thrill-free world where everyone has a good job, says something important about the sub-zero unemployment rate:
All my people are playing golf, driving new Passats, Nobody’s getting Wu Tang tattooed on their ass …
Riot and uproar, those days are long gone – What happened to my homies who were once everywhere?
As Europe shifts from crisis to recovery, its governments are beginning to express, albeit in rather different language, Marteria’s lament: Everybody’s looking for a job (and, in Germany, getting one), which means that nobody’s doing anything creative or interesting. Specifically, they’re not starting companies: Jobs are returning to established corporations in droves, but there’s little effort to create anything new. This has become a continent full of people who want to work for somebody else.
Germany, despite its unprecedented boom (or perhaps because of it), has become one of the least entrepreneurial places in the Western world. Only 5.3 per cent of Germans ever attempt to start their own business, so their country, despite being the world’s leading exporter, ranks just 20th out of 24 countries surveyed for entrepreneurial propensities by Rolf Sternberg of Leibniz University in Hannover. “Politicians here are very concerned with labour-market policy and attracting workers, but still aren’t very interested in encouraging people to start companies,” Prof. Sternberg tells me.
The scramble to fill the gaping employment hole is causing Germany to throw many old traditions – including entrepreneurship – over the side. Angela Merkel’s coalition government is racing to introduce all-day schooling for primary and secondary students, so mothers can take full-time jobs (a notion that was all but taboo in socially conservative Germany just a few years ago).
And on Tuesday, I watched Ms. Merkel’s Labour Minister, Andrea Nahles, deliver a speech promising to end Germany’s coldness toward immigrants and turn it into a place that will seduce hundreds of thousands more migrant workers to arrive: “We need a culture of welcoming people … We need to have an offer which shows them that we need them.”
Gone are the decades of hand-wringing about whether Germany is a “country of immigration” – employers need people. “In Rhineland-Palatinate, where I come from, we do not have theoretical debates about a shortage of skilled labour, we just have a shortage of skilled labour – we have 4 or 5 per cent unemployment, so we need migrants.”
This is encouraging rhetoric, but it is all based on the assumption that immigrants – and working women – are little more than “units of labour” to be plugged into pre-existing workplaces. It’s an industrial-age assumption.
To find an alternative approach, you need to travel to the other end of the continent, where Portugal – a country that has nothing even close to full employment – is pursuing a very different sort of immigration policy. Portugal has no need for migrant workers – it, like most Southern European countries, has seen a large-scale outflow of migrants since 2008, as nobody wanted to stick around in a country whose jobless rate hovered around 20 per cent. Instead, Lisbon is reaching out to people beyond Western Europe who will come and become employers.
“In the boom years after the ’90s, all our policies were designed to attract labour,” says Catarina Reis Oliveira, the head of the research department of the Portuguese government’s High Commission for Immigration. “But since the crisis, we’re looking at immigrants as a source of employment – as people to create jobs.”
It is a major program, supported by both Portugal’s conservative government and its left-wing opposition, to woo far-flung immigrants who want to be small-business founders – especially Brazilians, Chinese and Ukrainians, who have the strongest entrepreneurial success rate in Portugal (in large part because these groups have existing networks of small businesses there). To attract newcomers who want to launch shops and factories, they’ve created a “one-stop shop” program that offers easy small-business visas, quick business licences, small loans and quick access to the country’s banks. The immigrant entrepreneurship rate has risen 14 per cent, and even the rate among non-immigrants has gone up 6 per cent.
In other words, in a land where people are sticking with the safe life of employment, you might just need to import some risk-takers.
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