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Kai Ryssdal: Economists had all kinds of predictions when the Berlin Wall came down almost 18 years ago. The German re-unification would turn out to be far more expensive than anybody thought. That East German businesses would never be able to hold their own in the face of capitalist competition. And that young people would leave the East in droves looking for opportunity on the other side of the wall.
They were right on the first two. And on the last one as well. Except they didn’t quite nail down who would leave. Kyle James reports.
Kyle James: The town of Finsterwalde, an hour and a half south of Berlin, just celebrated its 725th anniversary. There was a three-day street party, bands, bratwurst stands and speeches extolling the town’s prosperous past.
But 25-year-old resident Thilo Manton sums up what a lot of young people here think about its future:
Thilo Manton: Most of the people go away from here, there is no future in Finsterwalde.
It’s the same in many parts of the former East Germany. Unemployment rates hover around 20 percent here. With few jobs, an estimated 10 percent of the population has packed bags and headed west. A new study found that many who’ve said “auf Wiedersehen” are young women in their 20s. The result: In some rural regions, there are just 75 young women left for every 100 young men.
Steffen Kroehnert: There are no such huge areas like eastern Germany in Europe with such a disproportional sex ratio.
Steffen Kroehnert is the social scientist who authored the study, called “Too Many Men.” He says he was surprised to find out that eastern German women are usually better-educated than men and more ready to take life by the horns.
Kroehnert: Higher qualified people are more mobile. They wish to have a better job, a better income. And that leads to the fact that women left eastern Germany more than men.
Twenty-seven-year-old Melanie Vetter was born and raised in Herzberg, just down the road from Finsterwalde. She loves it here, but she knows she’ll probably have to do what 18 of the 20 women in her graduating class did: leave home to find work.
Melanie Vetter (voice of interpreter): Of course, I’d be happy if I could find something here in Herzberg. I don’t want to leave the place, or my boyfriend. But a person has goals and desires, and you can’t live off air and love alone.
Those who leave usually don’t come back. They find boyfriends in the cities where they find work, get married and start families. Even if they’d like to settle down with a hometown boy, they often find that despite the male surplus, the pickings aren’t good. The gender imbalance has led to a new, male-dominated underclass in many areas of the east.
Herzberg’s mayor, Michael Oegnigk, often sees the young men left behind. They gather in the square outside his window — poorly educated, on welfare, usually single.
Michael Oegnigk (voice of interpreter): Those that don’t find work, they worry us. Not everyone, but there are those that become a problem for a small city like ours. They drink, they get together at bus stops and hang out, and often get involved in crime.
This group of frustrated, aimless men is perfect fodder for neo-Nazi groups looking for new members. The study found that right-wing radical parties in Germany get more votes in areas where most young women have left.
Back at the celebration in Finsterwalde, the town singers are performing after the mayor gives a speech calling on citizens not to give up hope on the region’s economic future. But it’s a hard sell. As the young and educated leave, the skilled workforce declines. Companies stay away, eroding the economy further.
Irene Gampa heads up the city’s department of social services and youth.
Irene Gampa (voice of interpreter): In the long run, it means we’ll keep shrinking. Young people leave, don’t have families here, don’t send their kids to school here. And that doesn’t look very good for our region.
Especially in light of another sobering statistic: 100,000. That’s the drop in the number of babies born in the region from 1995 to 2005, because the young women had gone.
In Finsterwalde, Germany, I’m Kyle James for Marketplace.
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