What are the masses of inequality

German conditions. A social studies

Stefan Hradil

Stefan Hradil, born in Frankenthal (Palatinate) in 1946, was Professor of Sociology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz from 1991 to 2011. After studying sociology, political science and Slavic philology at the University of Munich (1968-1973), he worked from 1974 to 1989 as a research assistant at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Munich. Doctorate in 1979 and habilitation in 1985 at the University of Munich. From 1989 to 1990 professor for social structure analysis at the University of Bamberg. Stefan Hradil received an honorary doctorate from the University of Economics in Budapest in 1994, was chairman of the German Society for Sociology from 1995 to 1998, has been chairman of the Schader Foundation in Darmstadt since 2001 and a member of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz since 2006. The main focus of work is social structure analysis, also in an international comparison, social inequality, social milieus and lifestyles, social change.

Social inequality has worsened over the past few decades. The main reasons lie in the increasing demands of the information and service society as well as globalization. Can inequalities continue to grow in the near future or will there be tendencies towards more social equality?

An overview of the aspects of social inequality presented reveals a picture of growing inequality almost across the board. Achieving a respectable and lucrative professional position is becoming more and more a question of qualifications. Children from lower social classes and from migrant families still have little chance of achieving a marketable qualification. The absolute barriers to advancement are growing, especially with regard to advancement from the lower to the middle classes. The business elite is increasingly being recruited from the upper classes.

The distributions of income and wealth diverge. More and more people have to make do with low incomes. More and more people can do business with ample income. The spread of material conditions manifests itself in many areas of life: in the equipment and size of apartments, in the appearance of city districts, in the range of consumer goods, in the mentalities and lifestyles of people. The social classes are moving apart.

Beyond the stratified structure, there are other factors that are associated with social advantages and disadvantages for people: Although many inequalities between men and women have decreased, and older people are now significantly less disadvantaged than they were a few decades ago. There has never been a generation of pensioners with such a low risk of poverty. But the gap between locals and many migrants has grown rather than narrowed. And many regional disparities, which can be seen, for example, in the risk of unemployment, have grown. The risk of being excluded from essential areas of society has increased for certain population groups and is viewed as an increasingly serious disadvantage. Many of the social inequalities outlined have only worsened for two or three decades. The increasing demands of the information and service society as well as globalization played a major role in this. Previously, for example, the distribution of income and wealth had become more and more the same. The question therefore arises as to whether we will have to reckon with growing inequalities in the near future or whether tendencies towards more social equality are in sight again.

Future developments

Almost all experts predict that financial inequalities will continue to grow. The ongoing change towards technologies that require high qualifications, as well as the globalization of the labor and capital markets, will ensure that market incomes will continue to diverge in the next few years. In addition, the ongoing pluralization of lifestyles will increase inequalities: For example, it will have a negative impact on the income situation of the ever increasing number of single parents and a positive effect on the earnings of the increasing number of childless double earners. Demographic aging will no longer make the situation of retirees as favorable as it is today, because every employed person will have to pay for more and more retirees.

Welfare state regulations will reduce the extent of the development towards more inequality, but they will not be able to reverse the trend itself. Because the means for welfare state interventions will be limited for demographic reasons, because of the high national debt and global economic competition. It will become more difficult to carry out top-down reallocations without risking job risks for the low-skilled and emigration of skilled and capital owners. Workers will only be able to bear a certain burden in favor of the elderly, childless and double earners in favor of two- and one-parent families. Relatively low and relatively high incomes will therefore become more common.

Different ratings

These foreseeable developments are judged completely differently politically and morally. Socialist and social democratic-minded people as well as many Christian conservatives see extremely problematic developments in these future prospects. They condemn the increasing unequal chances of life and development of the people, see the cohesion of society endangered, expect protest and resistance especially in West Germany, withdrawal and disaffection with politics mainly in East Germany. From this point of view, the coming dangers can at best be alleviated by increasing the permeability of class boundaries in educational institutions, in cities and in everyday life. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that growing financial inequalities and the living conditions associated with them need not necessarily have a negative impact. They expect more individual motivation and social dynamism through growing incentives and increasing deterrence. But even those with a liberal mindset see that these positive effects only result if more equality of opportunity is achieved. People will only come to terms with increasingly unequal living conditions if the lower classes, migrants, women and the elderly have more opportunities to improve their situation through individual efforts.

Overall, therefore, greater contrasts are to be expected in Germany than in the past. This applies to people's lives as well as to their interpretation and political debate. In particular, the weakening compensatory function of the shrinking middle classes and the resulting more controversial assessments of the structure of social inequality threaten to reduce political stability.

How can more equality be achieved?

All camps agree that the education system and the opportunities it provides will be of central importance. If more educational successes are made possible in future for educationally disadvantaged population groups and if the proportion of highly qualified people increases overall, the prospects for professional and social advancement will improve. In contrast to positions that require few qualifications, there will be plenty of jobs for those with higher qualifications. A (social) opening up of the education system - also through the expansion of further training - changes the conditions on the labor market itself and makes it superfluous to compensate for its undesirable developments (unemployment, precarious working conditions, low wage sector) through redistribution and protection and thereby cause considerable "land damage" . An educational policy geared towards more equal opportunities will thus be the best social policy in the future.

Adequate qualification strengthens people's confidence that they can meet growing demands themselves and reduces the need for and awareness of being dependent on help. A lower social selectivity and a higher effectiveness of the education system set productive forces free and do not, like the socio-political redistribution, feed on the results of production. Ultimately, improved educational efforts through expansion of preschools, schools and extracurricular education will equalize the distribution of income. If less qualified people leave the educational institutions, the wage-stifling competition for the increasingly rare jobs for them diminishes. If more and more qualified people are among the graduates, then the wage-increasing shortage of skilled workers decreases.