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A Sociological Analysis of the Spread of Affluence (1974)

In the early 1970s, economic growth in the Federal Republic led to significant increases in wages and social welfare payments, prompting sociologist M. Rainer Lepsius to speak of the emergence of an “affluent society,” which also included the working class. As a result of these developments, more people had access to consumer goods.

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Social Structure and Social Stratification in the Federal Republic of Germany

The social development of the Federal Republic is characterized by an increase in the gross national product and the attendant overall rise in the standard of living. [ . . . ]

This considerable increase in the GNP and in incomes has substantially raised the standard of living of the population as a whole and has brought about an overall improvement in living conditions for all income levels. For most members of the population, this improvement also led to a greater sense of subjective satisfaction with their own economic circumstances. Opinion polls from 1969 and 1972 indicate that roughly 60 to 70 percent of those questioned assessed their own economic situation as good, and only about 10 percent rated it as poor.

Economic growth, full employment, and the raising of pensions (as well as the linking of pensions to inflation rates, so as to preserve their value) form the basis of the subjective perception that the economy is secure and the goods supply is adequate. With the exception of certain marginal groups, especially people who fall through the cracks of the social welfare system due to exceptional circumstances in their personal histories, poverty is no longer the collective fate of an entire social class.

Nonetheless, there are great differences in income distribution. [ . . . ] Self-employed people have the highest incomes, whereas retiree incomes are below average. Actual living conditions are determined by the household income level. The number of people to be cared for within a household and the aggregate income of the various people contributing to it determine the per-person income allotment and the living standard afforded by it. [ . . . ]

Stratifying wage earners according to taxable income for the year 1965 shows that 50 percent of all taxpayers have 20 percent of the combined [national] income at their disposal. Another 40 percent of taxpayers earned 40 percent of the combined income; nine percent had a 25-percent share of the combined income; and one percent earned the remaining 15 percent. [ . . . ]

The collective rise in income led to the widespread distribution of durable consumer goods. Television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines have become ubiquitous features of today’s modern household; ownership of them is no longer determined by class status. These objects are not the mere expression of a quest for prestige or the result of advertising slogans; they represent the actual enjoyment of commodities of affluence. Above all, however, ownership of them is the precondition for the whole population’s participation in mass communication, for the structural transformation of the retail industry, and for the unburdening of working wives. The ongoing spread of these sorts of goods, particularly passenger cars, telephones, and dishwashers, should not be viewed only in terms of consumer behavior; rather, it also serves an important function in the further rationalization of housekeeping, of the retail industry, and of services. Passenger cars are still unevenly distributed among various occupational groups. In 1969, about 50 percent of blue-collar households, 60 percent of white-collar households, and 70 percent of government-worker households owned a motor vehicle; whereas this was the case for 80 percent of households led by farmers and self-employed people. Telephone ownership is even more unevenly distributed: only 12 percent of blue-collar households owned telephones, but 50 percent of white-collar and government-worker households did. Germany differs from other countries in that the telephone is not yet a standard household feature. This, however, might be attributable to more than just differences in purchasing power. [ . . . ]

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