In 1990 when I did my German civilian service – working in a hospital – it took 15 months, three months more than the military conscription option. So if you then went on to university you would have probably missed two entry years and be at least in your mid-twenties when you graduated. Yet boys emptying bedpans were considered shirkers. In recent years this attitude has changed fundamentally.
Today “Zivildienst” is regarded as being the equivalent of military service – and now takes the same length of time. Last year 90,000 young men chose this alternative, while only 68,000 went to the army. One reason is that with modern technology and the changing character of conflicts, the Bundeswehr simply doesn’t need – or want – so many conscripts. Indeed to cope with all the recruits the government is now proposing to reduce the basic military service from nine to six months.
There is concern whether soldiers can even be properly trained in such a short period. A spokesperson for the defence ministry tells Monocle that “it is important not simply to reduce service by three months but to condense and streamline time spent at the Bundeswehr.”
With many former conscripts complaining about how boring their life in the army was, young men may be pleased with the change. But the collateral damage will be in civilian service. If the changes are approved by parliament, from October this will now also last only six months.
Social service providers complain that the new arrangement will leave them with staff shortages. “This shortening challenges the way civilian service can help people in need,” says Werner Hesse, executive director of Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, an umbrella association for more than 10,000 social organisations. He also stresses the important cultural benefits of civilian service that may be lost: “Other countries can learn from this specific German mix of voluntary work and social responsibility.”
What is the solution? Germany’s minister for families, Kristina Schröder, knows that “a service that is shorter by one third cannot be easily absorbed [by service providers]“. That’s why she wants to allow young men to be able to prolong the period of service by up to another six months. Without this, Schröder tells Monocle, “for many organisations civilian service will no longer make sense”.
Perhaps upgrading the so-called Voluntary Social Year might also help. This allows Germans to sign up for six to 18 months of voluntary work before entering the job market. It’s a way of doing something meaningful after completing school and before heading to university or into the labour market. In its current format it is mainly an option chosen by women but some men also do it after completing their civilian service (women are not called up for conscription or compulsory social service). While the government currently funds only 15,700 of these volunteers a year, many more join the programme: last year 35,000 people entered the scheme. Experts estimate that demand could hit 60,000 given proper funding. And this despite the fact that it is not an easy life even if you get government support – the state only pays you €72 a month.
It seems clear that to deal with an ageing population, rising health costs and ever sinking federal budgets, Germany will continue to need young men – and women – who want to help others. If this means spending a comparatively small amount of tax income to help people extend their civilian service or to opt for a Voluntary Social Year, then this looks like a wise move.