Posh Pessimism Meets German Hard Knocks

BERLIN -- In the West German high school days of Sandra Reuse, gloomy books such as "1984'' were not just novels. They were blueprints for the future.

Life was comfortable for Germans. Money and jobs were plentiful, but so were nuclear missiles, offshore oil rigs and butchered whales.

For this well-heeled generation in black jeans and black leather jackets, doom was inevitable, prosperity irrelevant. "We knew there would be a catastrophe one day,'' says Reuse, now a 26-year-old university student.

"The motto,'' says her friend Klemens Grupp, "was 'No future.'''

Disaster has indeed arrived for the twenty- and thirtysomethings of western Germany, although hardly the way they expected. Record postwar unemployment topped 11 percent in March, and the wealthy system that once made pessimism so comfortable is eroding beneath their feet. Now, it seems, disaster is neither grandiose nor fashionable. It is all too mundane and personal as they fret over wages and benefits.

Cushy social welfare programs, once envied abroad, now face deep cuts. Free colleges and universities, longtime havens for academic careers lasting a decade or more, may soon begin charging tuition. Big businesses want more say about hiring, firing and wages.

Add it up and you have the dawn of an age of "angst'' for people such as Reuse and Grupp.

"I have many friends who are really depressed,'' says Grupp, 28, a recent law school graduate who considers himself lucky for having just landed a boring job handling pension files. "You go to job interviews and they treat you like dirt on the street, like a beggar, because there are so many others.''

Not to say that the country is on the verge of falling apart economically. Those who work still enjoy some of the world's most generous wages and benefits, while the jobless still fall into a soft, generous safety net. It is the cost of all this security which is now under attack, with government and business arguing that without some cutbacks there will only be more unemployment.

Hans Peter Stihl, whose Stuttgartt-based company makes the chain saw that bears his name worldwide, says the system led people to assume wages and benefits would fatten forever, while hours on the job would keep shrinking.

"That was their life experience up to now,'' says Stihl. "Now that is going to change, because in the last few years we have realized that competition doesn't start just outside the German border in Switzerland or in France."

The way to toughen up Germans, especially the westerners, Stihl and others say, is a dose of the American way of business, where corporations have more to say about hiring, firing and paying. In Germany, most companies are part of huge intercorporate tariff agreements with major trade unions.

But a lecture on the benefits of the American system is hardly the sort of talk people such as Reuse like to hear.

"The best way, those people say, is to know exactly what you want when you are 19, then go through a pseudo-education at university and never try out other things or have a different experience. To our politicians, the American system is a good example. You pay for your education, study fast, get a job.''