Being born and raised in Germany and having lived in the US for the last five years, the Machinist feels tempted to give you a perspective about the two places.
First Thing First
Compared to most countries in this world, both are ridiculously top notch. By being born in one of them, you have already won the lottery of life before you even started. To screw up in the US or Germany you have to really “try hard” or your parents had to try even harder and pull you down with them. Otherwise it’s really difficult not to have a good life in both countries.
You disagree with me? Your life is bad? Your last plane trip was delayed? Your boss did not give you a rise this year? You cannot stop complaining? Ok, fellow first world citizen. No problem! The Machinist will fire up his human swap machine to exchange you with a person from…let’s say for example rural China, India or central Africa were your chances of being born in the first place where a multiple higher anyway.
So you are gone. But what do we have here. A human being catapulted into the first world. Welcome! No, you don’t need to cry of joy. Please come up from your knees. Hey, no need to kiss the Machinist feet. Which of the stunning and unprecedented achievements of 250 years of capitalism do you want to experience first? Do you want to ride in a modern car or first fly through the sky in a plane? No, it’s not expensive. A domestic plane ticket is about a ONE DAY SALARY. Do you want to visit a beautiful and safe German city packed with thousand years of history or do you prefer an American national park where you can experience nature and comfort like nowhere else?….
Ah, what a joy to see our Third World friend experience those wonders of human development for the first time. We just transformed his life of hardship and limited possibilities into one of crazy abundance and chances waiting for him around every corner. You on the other side have the first time in your life a real reason to complain… Time to put things in perspective – what do you think?
This thought experiment should make it clear that your life is at default crazy awesome level simply by having either an American or German flag flying over your head and when you screw up there is no one else to blame but the person you see in the mirror every morning.
After having that off our plate, let’s go for the meat. What are the particular strengths of each country?
Climate and Landscape
I don’t need to write much about this. The US wins this one big time! Do you want to live at a tropical beach (South Florida)? In a desert (Arizona)? Mountains anybody? Mediterranean climate like in South Spain (South California)? You can even have your German like overcast sky in Washington State. The US has everything. You can move to a completely different climate and you are still in the same country, speak the same language and enjoy the same services. Germany has nice beaches and landscapes too. But even in summer it’s a hit or miss regarding weather. You could end up spending most of your precious summer vacation time indoors because half of the time it’s cold and rainy. But when the days finally are getting longer and it’s warm and sunny, there is nothing that can hold the Germans back. You find them all outside. Exposing every possible patch of skin to the sun and enjoying themselves.
Income and Career Opportunities
Both places enjoy a level of prosperity that no human being could imagine two centuries ago. Comparing both countries with each other, the US has a ~20% higher GDP by PPP standards and on top also a lower tax rate (maybe beside New York City and California with its state and local taxes), so citizens can keep more of what they earn. After living and enjoying both places I think that a good amount of this higher salaries in the US are concentrated at the top 10-20% of income earners. When you can do things that are in very high demand and not many can or want to do them, you can earn a ridiculously high salary in the United States. Germany has also high salaries especially in the engineering sector but they are more dampened by higher taxes and by an influx of other highly educated European citizens. On top of that the US corporate environment is much more flexible regarding career changes, new employments and climbing the corporate ladder. Even at an US Fortune 500 corp. employees are asked on Friday if they want to start in a higher position next week. That’s unthinkable in Germany where you need a myriad of seminars, approvals, licenses and whatever else to make a career step in one of the big corporations.
This one has different meanings on each side of the Atlantic Ocean. In Germany it means that because of worker councils, contracts and sometimes even political involvement you nearly cannot be fired from your job (if you don’t do stupid things like stealing or running naked around the office). Those employment conditions also sometimes still exists in the US (at the Government or an older industry sector) but in most US states you will work under “Right to Work” laws, which basically means the right to terminate employment from both sides at any time. For most Germans this is an outlandish concept but it has a lot of benefits for the economy and increases flexibility not only for employers but also employees. If you can be fired at any time you also have less regrets to change your employer at your own initiative. When the economy is going well this enables more upward mobility.
Let’s say it like this – With a high enough income you are able to live in a superbly save environment in the US, where you don’t even need to lock up your house and you can keep the keys in your car when you buy groceries. The same holds up in many small towns where people know each other. If that is not given or you are just starting out from a poorer place, there are tough spots where you have to be cautious. Germany is pretty safe with a few exceptions nearly everywhere. Nonviolent crime like car theft or pocket picking are more common since a few years but violent crime rates are only a fraction in Germany of those in the US.
The Machinist was waiting for this one. When I was working at a multinational megacorp in the United States, the US employees that were transferred as expats to Germany had to attend a seminar before their move, which tried to train them in not taking perceived German rudeness personally. On the other side when I was first arriving as a German in the US, I was amazed how friendly the Americans where towards me. They asked me “How are you doing” instead of a German head nodding or a small Hallo when I was lucky. But then I learned that my US colleagues did not really want to know how I felt but it’s just a polite exchange of words. The time it takes until you make real friends is about the same at both sides of the pond. I made real friends in the US and yes, you can also make real friends in Germany. Germans can be surprisingly warm, once they know you better. The general desire to be polite and to sugar coat random conversations is just lower on the German side.
Both countries offer great opportunities for a happy family time. German highlights are the six weeks vacation time for the majority of employees. At work it is encouraged to take one vacation time with a minimum of two weeks in summer or even tree weeks as a nonstop period. If you come with your US mindset of always showing how hard you are working without a break, your German boss and your colleagues will let you feel some heat that you should take a longer time off to recharge your batteries and take care of your family/social life. A very nice concept in my opinion. In case you have a newborn, you can enjoy an extremely generous maternity leave policy, which includes generous financial support in the first 12 to 14 months for every new family member. On top families get child tax credits or directly some kind of child transfer money (Kindergeld) depending on your income level. The person that stays home with the child will have a work guarantee of three years after birth in most companies. Telling that my American colleagues when I arrived in the US, was earning me looks like I arrived from outside our solar system.
In the US there are some child tax credits for low to middle-income earners but the bucket already stops there. In most corporations it’s still uncommon if a parent takes more than three-month of maternity leave and this time is normally unpaid. Where the US absolutely shines is the general welcoming attitude and friendliness towards families and children. Go to a restaurant and no matter how much noise your kids are making you will be treated well. As an expat you can make new American friends super easy when you are with your family. A myriad of BBQ invitations and swim club activities are waiting for you. American hospitality at its best! And when you come from Germany and think that having two kids is already a lot, you will be surprised to find that many American families have three or even more kids. They are very proud of it and you will not hear a single complain about cost, without getting all this social transfers to support families like in Europe.
Both countries are awesome. From my experience in the United States the highs of life tend to be higher and the lows are lower than in Germany. Which means if you are a self driven high achiever with a profession that’s in high demand and you have a general positive outlook on life you are probably better off in the US or at least you should give it a try. If you value structure, processes, security and time with friends and family and love European culture you should spend some time in Germany.
The best thing about moving to the other side of the pond is anyway to gain a new perspective. You will grow as a person and this will benefit you for the rest of your life.