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Six Routes

Waiting for a big break in Germany’s new economy

Krissy Clark Feb 27, 2015
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Felicitas Sonnenberg is a waitress with dark hair and bright eyes, and works at a trendy restaurant in Berlin where business people go for a nice lunch.

As she darts from table to table, she takes customers’ orders with a pen and pad of paper she keeps tucked in a black, polka-dotted belt strapped around her waist. It holds not just her order pad, but, she hopes, her ticket to making it in the German economy.

A little context. Maybe when you think of the German economy, certain things come to mind: good pay, lots of vacation, strong social-safety net, perhaps something about precise German engineering.

For many years, those clichés were pretty accurate. Precise German engineering led to lots of well-made German products like cars, engines and industrial machines, built by lots of well-paid German workers — who could be so well-paid because their well-made products were in demand around the world. Germany called it their “economic miracle,” or Wirtschaftswunder, and it led to the companion doctrine of Wholstand Für Alle, which translates to “prosperity for all.” 

“That was the promise after the Second World War, that we will have a strong economy but that the profits will be shared so everyone can profit from the growth,” says Peter Bofinger, an economic adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the shifts in the German economy brought on by unification and globalization have called the promise of shared prosperity into question, says Bofinger. “We have seen in the last twenty years more or less a stagnation of living standards for the wide majority of the population.”

Along with those fears has come a new German reality, a rise in the number of working poor. Many well-paid manufacturing jobs in Germany have gone overseas, or to European countries with lower labor costs, leaving behind more temporary, part-time and low-paying work in Germany.

And that is where waitress Felicitas Sonnenberg comes in. Sonnenberg makes 8.50 euro an hour, about the equivalent of $9.65 in the United States.

Waitresses, taxi drivers, hairdressers and workers in other kinds of service industries make up a large share of Germany’s new working poor. Pay has gotten low enough in many of these industries in early 2015 Germany established a minimum wage for the first time ever.

In the case of Sonnenberg, the boost she got when the minimum wage kicked in still wasn’t enough for her to make ends meet.

“It would be wonderful to live with my money — what I earn in my job,” she says. “But it’s not enough without help of the state.”

Sonnenberg is separated from her husband, raising two young children on her own. She gets some aid from the government that goes toward rent and daycare, and she says she is grateful for it. But in recent years Germany, long known for a strong social-safety net, has been rethinking how much to spend on that net. Sonnenberg says she can feel the scrutiny when she goes to her local welfare office.

“They were treating me like somebody who doesn’t want to work — who only wants to get the money of the state, “ she says. “And I am not like that.”

Sonnenberg works part time right now, but she says as a single mom even that can be a tough balancing act. Once she is home from work, her children are eager for her attention. Bath time, dinner time, homework, bedtime, “Everything has to be done in a certain way, to finish in time to bring the children to bed at 9 o’clock,” she says.

But after the kids are in bed, Sonnenberg gets busy making plans for her future.

That black dotted belt she was wearing at the restaurant, to keep her pen and order pad? She designed and made it herself, after feeling frustrated with the standard money belts that most German wait staff use.

She has shopped her design around to people in the fashion industry and received coaching from state-funded agencies on how to prototype and trademark the design. “I want to produce this and have my own company,” she says.

She already has the trademark certificate framed, hanging in a narrow hallway in her apartment. “This is my office,” she says with a laugh.

Sonnenberg says she has told the welfare agency about her efforts to start her own business; she says she was warned it might be too much for a single mother, and that maybe she should stick to waitressing. And so she says she is torn, between the income she makes now, and taking a risk to make more. 

“I am believing in my product because I love it and I use it every day, and I think that there is really a need of this thing,” she says. “But I have a fear to go into the business market, because I feel so little.”

Yet, little creative start-up businesses like Sonnenberg’s are being touted by German politicians as one of the best new hopes for the German economy.

As scared as Sonnenberg is, she is also hopeful.

“I always said when I really found my company, I will open a bottle of Champagne — but I never did it, because you never know when, when is the real start,” she says.

Because even with her framed trademark certificate and her prototypes, Sonnenberg says it’s hard to know when you’ve really made it in the German economy these days.

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