Britain and Germany go head to head on worklife, homelife, equality… and football

Justin Rowlatt, host of BBC2's Make Me a German, took his family to Germany to see how living there compares to life in Britain. Here's what he found out...


The British love to hate the Germans. It is part of an intense – and very one-sided-rivalry. But while Britain still boasts of “two world wars and one world cup”, by any sensible measure, Germany is now way ahead of Britain. Just look at the German economy, by far the largest in Europe. While Britain is closing factories down, German industry is booming. They make great cars and great washing machines; earn more money for fewer hours and get longer holidays. So how on earth do they do it?



Our BBC bosses had chosen to exile us to the prosperous town of Nuremberg in the southern German state of Bavaria, reckoning it was as typical as anywhere in this very regional nation.

The first challenge was to trim down our large brood. The average German woman has just 1.4 children compared with 2.0 in Britain. We’ve got four kids, so to bring us closer to the German average we were told only two could come with us. We took baby Will and Elsa, who is six. Despite their protests, the eldest two had to stay in Britain and go to school.

Then we needed somewhere to live, much easier to find in Germany than in Britain. Most Germans are happy to live their entire lives in rented accommodation, and renting is far cheaper than it would be over here. Our generous top-floor two-bed flat in a fairly central area of town cost just under £120 a week.

One–nil to Germany

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I’d already got a job lined up, making pencils at Faber-Castell, one of the largest and oldest pencil manufacturers in the world. We hear a lot about Germany’s hi-tech successes but it seems that the country is still doing pretty well at the low-tech stuff. Faber-Castell makes two billion pencils a year, one in six pencils sold worldwide. And it does well out of it, making around €50 million a year profit – not bad for a technology that hasn’t changed in a century and a half.

I can’t say the work was interesting; I was literally watching paint dry – overseeing the vast machines that lacquer the pencils. But my place on the production line provided the perfect vantage point from which to spy into the secrets of German industry. And what really strikes you on the factory floor is just how accurate the stereotypes of German industry are. German workers are punctual, orderly and very hard-working.

The backbone of German industry, the Mittelstand, is made up of family businesses. They employ around two-thirds of German workers and have a very distinctive attitude to business. That is clear when I meet the silver-haired boss of the pencil factory, the Graf, or Count, Anton Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, a direct descendent of the man who founded the family pencil empire 250 years ago. He sees himself more as the company’s custodian, looking after it for future generations, and, like most Mittelstand bosses, says he takes a long-term view – often planning decades in advance.

It seems a much sounder strategy than the race to maximise profits that often characterises Britain’s form of laissez-faire capitalism.

Two-nil to Germany


German children do pretty much as well as British kids, according to international comparisons, but don’t have to go to school until they are seven. That means our daughter Elsa, in her third year at primary school in Britain, is back in kindergarten.

She doesn’t seem to mind. We’ve got her a place in a Waldkindergarten – a forest kinder-garten. Everything happens out in the woods, whatever the weather. There are just a couple of canvas shelters if it rains or snows. The idea is that being out in nature reduces stress and helps children assess risks and develop more naturally.

One downside of children starting school so late is that someone needs to be at home to look after them. In Germany that almost always means mum. Fewer than a third of German mothers work compared with two-thirds in Britain. My wife Bee wonders if this reflects the enduring German cult of the Hausfrau – the housewife. She suggests it means women have a lower status in Germany than in Britain.

When I get my pay packet I realise there may be another reason. There are very generous tax breaks and child-benefit payments, reflecting the German government policy of encouraging couples to have children – driven in part by the country’s low rates of fertility. Bee’s not convinced. The country may be led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, but just two per cent of its CEOs are women – one of the lowest rates in the developed world. I have to concede that Britain wins on the equality front.

Two-one to Germany

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You really can’t avoid mentioning the war in Nuremberg, the key city of the Nazi regime. Hitler agreed with the city’s Nazi mayor, who called Nuremberg the “most German of German cities”. Like the majority of Germany, it was shattered by war. In the postwar years, the German people needed to pull together to rebuild the nation. That meant hard work and self-sacrifice – the priority was to invest rather than reward workers. Ironically, it’s this reconstruction that helped shape modern Germany and provided the groundwork for its success.

Three-one to Germany


On my last weekend in Germany I get the opportunity to see the perfect example of its industrial philosophy at work: a football match.

In Germany fans own a big share in most clubs, and the latter are less interested in profits and more in the long-term performance of the team. Ticket prices are lower. It cost us just €15 for good tickets to see Bayern Munich play Hamburg.

And what a game! Bayern won 9–2 and went on to win the first all-German Champions League final. Further proof, if any were needed, of Germany’s dominance of world football.

…which gives Germany a four-one victory over Britain at full time.

Make Me a German is tonight at 9pm on BBC2


Visit Germany with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details