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Lebenswelten 4.0? The Importance of Social Environments in Urban and Rural Regions in Light of Demographic Change

Lebenswelten 4.0? The Importance of Social Environments in Urban and Rural Regions in Light of Demographic Change
Source: Gesine Born


On Monday, 20 January, 2020, Population Europe hosted a panel debate in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) and the project "Demografiewerkstatt Kommunen". The objective was to discuss the questions, such as how will families, civil society, and one’s social environment be able to provide basic services in the future and how can policymakers provide support; how can we incentivise young people and young families to either remain or return to certain regions; and, how do we make it possible for older people to continue to live self-determined lives and participate in society in both rural and urban areas? The panellists were:

  • Dr Manja Schüle, Brandenburg State Minister for Science, Research and Culture
  • Carla Kniestedt, Member of the Landtag in Brandenburg and former Moderator at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg
  • Elisabeth Niejahr, Director of the Hertie Foundation, former Head of Reporting at Wirtschaftwoche
  • Martin Patzelt, Member of German Bundestag, former Mayor of Frankfurt (Oder)
  • Prof. Dr Norbert Schneider, Director of the Federal Institute for Population Research

This event was the end to a day-long forum with representatives from the national, state and local governments, the research community, the economy and civil society, who discussed the situation of young people, young families and older generations in rural and urban regions. The results of these discussions were presented at the panel debate in order to share the results directly with policy makers and helped continue the discussion as they contributed their thoughts on the subject at hand. More information on the results of this event can be found here.

Following opening remarks by Prof. Dr Matthias Schwanenflügel, Department Director at the BMFSFJ, Minister Dr Manja Schüle began by addressing the importance of establishing education and research institutions to make a region more attractive. She discussed the efforts by the Ministry in Brandenburg to establish more schools, universities and non-university research institutions to create a stronger infrastructure. Cultural opportunities are also important because they are a chance for people in the community to interact. As she stated, "Loneliness is the biggest enemy of residents."

Carla Kniestedt argued in favour of municipalities having more financial responsibility because she sees the importance of individuals feeling that they can make changes themselves and having the ability to improve something without dealing with a major bureaucracy. It is crucial to listen to the local residents that have first-hand experience from the community and can name the problems and actually change them. She stressed the need to move on from model projects and to begin to consolidate and multiply projects that have been proven to be successful in the region. Kniestedt also argued that people are moving back to these rural areas and not just away to the bigger cities. In Brandenburg, there is a challenge for those who want to move to these areas to find housing due to city-dwellers having already purchased these homes to use as vacation homes. But unless mobility is improved, there will be no reason to talk about other topics related to rural areas in the future.

Martin Patzelt provided insights from his time as Mayor of Frankfurt an der Oder, during which he was a strong proponent of accepting refugees in the city. The role of immigrants in helping rural areas regrow their labour force has been a topic of debate for some time. Through his experience, he emphasized the importance of allowing communication among all members of a community in order to garner support. He also stressed the need to make sure these individuals are integrated into society and given the opportunity to learn new skills and be employed. This is not only important for immigrants to feel a part of society, but also for others to have the chance to come in contact with them and learn that they are not as different as they thought.

Prof. Dr Norbert Schneider highlighted an important aspect of the lives of those living in rural communities, but working in cities: commuting. Through research by the Federal Institute for Population Studies, they have defined commuters as individuals traveling 45 minutes or more to work, one way. There are approximately 4.5 million individuals in Germany that are considered commuters on a daily basis. Reasons for this high number include the increase in female participation in the labour force since it can be challenging to find a location where both members of a partnership can find employment; the growth in temporary jobs for which people typically do not want to move for; a lack of desire by Germans to be in a long-distance relationship; and with an increase in education, people are learning skills specific to a certain regional labour market and not skills that are in demand in a broader labour market. He stressed the importance of policymakers finding ways to reduce commuting because it creates risks. For example, it produces time-related stress since individuals have less time to either go to the doctor or engage in their communities. From a demographic perspective, it has been found that women who commute tend to have children later in life or they quit working since they are no longer able or willing to commute.

Elisabeth Niejahr expressed her objection to focusing only on individual aspects of this issue. It has always been a challenge to establish a big-picture viewpoint of demography and demography-related issues due to "pillarization", or the division of demography into separate sectors. Instead, she stressed the need to work together and to think about these issues together, i.e., different ministries working together instead of independently. She called for more support for individuals that want to move to rural and suburban areas through a massive expansion of public transportation. She sees this as a chance to support those already living in surrounding areas, expand infrastructure and help those that want to move out of the city.

In response to the need for more overreaching efforts and to work together more on these issues, Minister Schüle stressed the need to better understand and to accept the importance of solidarity among each other and among different political levels. This means individuals and communities have to realise that in order to help certain regions, for example, then other, more prosperous regions may have to provide more financial support. If people do not want to support solidarity, then it will be difficult to create a more connected society.

Building off of this idea, Dr Schneider raised the importance of thinking about what it means to be equal and to have equal living conditions (gleichwertige Lebensverhältnisse): What is actually being compared? Patzelt went further by responding that a problem is the belief that it is possible to achieve equal living conditions everywhere. In reality, there are different qualities to life and people cannot always have everything: Is it really a good idea to achieve the same living conditions everywhere when we have such diverse needs? He emphasised that to achieve this equality, it means redistributing resources to other regions or communities, similar to what Minister Schüle argued. But policymakers are not always willing or are afraid to take things away in fear of losing votes. Therefore, he continued to emphasise the importance of discussion between policymakers and citizens when deciding how to spend tax payers’ money so that such decisions are not made alone.

Another major point touched on in the discussion was centred around trust. Patzelt mentioned the lack of trust government officials have in citizens, which is a reason for delay in the allocation of funds out of concern that the approved project will not be carried out well. This leads to frustration among citizens about the government’s inability to do something, which dampens the motivation of engaged citizens. He called for "more courage to make reasoned decisions." Minister Schüle then added that it is not just about the government trusting and having confidence in its citizens, but citizens also need to have trust in their government, which is missing in Germany. When citizens do not fully understand a policy, it is important they trust their representative to make a decision that is in their best interest and the community’s interest. Niejahr provided anecdotal evidence from discussions with citizens who did not actually believe the recent coal agreement would be implemented as agreed upon, highlighting their lack of trust in the government. She said citizens should be better educated, starting from an early age, to understand  that representative democracy is not perfect and that policymakers do not have to do just what you like, but rather, the majority opinion is what matters.

This understanding of democracy ties into the need for citizens and policymakers to also be more empathetic and to be able to take on a different perspective. Since many of us live in specialised societies, as argued by Kniestedt, people cannot perceive other people’s problems – everyone masters the areas he or she is in charge of – but this also means that people may not understand what others need. Whether or not people are being left behind, if community members feel this way, then it is critical that policymakers listen to them and try to understand their feelings. An inability to do this will only create greater problems.

From this debate, it was apparent how important communication is, whether it is among members of one’s community or outside community, or with one’s local government. Through more communication, a greater understanding for each other can be established, which can help make sure needs are met and living conditions are improved.