Have you ever tried talking about money in Germany? Try it. It is nearly impossible: convention dictates that talking about money is not accepted – at least if you have it.
If you want to get rid of annoying small-talkers at a party, make colleagues really uncomfortable at work or infuriate your friends: Talk about how much money you make! But, as with any other topic: if nobody wants to talk about it it is high time to do just that. Because it is a vicious circle.
By not talking about our salaries we miss the opportunity to talk about equal entry to the job market. Because nobody in Germany is allowed to talk about what they earn, everyone is in doubt except the ones who pay the salary. This increases the existing power asymmetry between employees and employers even further. In my generation one in five academics accepts a precarious job situation. Once you are in such a situation it is really hard to break out of it.
Furthermore, by not talking about salary we lose the opportunity to talk about what makes a fair salary. As clichéd as it seems, this is an imperative and necessary question: Is it really fair that a CEO of a bank makes 234 times more money than a nursery-school worker? Anshu Jain, Co-CEO of the Deutsche Bank, earned 7, 5 Million Euros in 2013 (not including advantages like a car and a driver, etc.) while a nursery-school worker (female) makes 21 600 Euro before taxes… Why?… I always hear: That is complex problem without easy answers. Well is it really that complex? Are we taking into account the huge responsibility and stress level a nursery-school worker has to live with? By not talking about it we are accepting a growing divide in how incomes are distributed in our society.
Every year, about 250 billion Euros are handed down within German families. Only 5 billion are paid in inheritance tax. I understand that when you work hard in life, you want to give something on to your children. But it is just as reasonable to expect that those children, who have not worked for their money or paid any income tax for it, should give something back to the society that enabled their parents to become wealthy, and offers them free infrastructure and education? Streets, schools and universities do not build themselves.
Instead, in a country where so many highly educated people live in precarious living situations, people will accept inheritance as a private safeguard. And this further cements the inequality between the rich and the poor.
Money comes with accountability and responsibility, especially when it is handed down. It is easy to just feel entitled instead.
If you dare talk money, you are invariably eventually disqualified by one simple sentence: You are just jealous. You begrudge others their good fortune. There is even a word for it in German: Neiddebatte, a debate guided by envy. I take that point.
But maybe even people who are envious have got a bigger point. And that is that the discrepancy between the rich and the poor is steadily evolving. Not because it makes sense, or because it is the way it is supposed to be, but because the distribution of income and property is organized by the people who have them, and because the rest of us are supporting them by not talking about it. Let’s accept that envy, in this case, is an expression of injustice, and that injustice is best served by keeping quiet about it.
So let’s talk!