The affluence that spread in the wake of the Economic Miracle produced a drastic transformation of popular culture and consumption patterns in both German states. In the West, the successful trade union campaign for the introduction of the 40-hour work week freed Saturday from labor and created more time for recreational pursuits. Moreover, the quadrupling of average household incomes made it possible for larger circles of the population to acquire coveted consumer goods as the mark of economic success and to shift their leisure habits towards driving and watching television. As a result, the Federal Republic experienced a period of rapid motorization, with the number of cars multiplying six-fold from under 5 million in 1961 to about 30 million in 1989. Similarly, the number of television connections increased from under 5 million in the early 1960s to over 23 million by the late 1980s in the West. Consumer durables also proliferated throughout the GDR, albeit somewhat later and to a slightly lesser extent. Television viewing rates approached Western levels, but car purchases lagged behind on account of the poor quality of East German models, as well as the 15-year waiting period between order and delivery dates.
The increase in leisure time and money among the general population also hastened what critics described as an “Americanization” of popular culture. Although transformations in leisure habits like the switch from watching movies to television also occurred in other advanced industrial societies, U.S.-produced media content, such as Hollywood films, and homegrown television series based on American models began to displace older German forms of mass entertainment. This impact was strongest in rock and roll music, which swept through West German working-class youth culture in the late 1950s and even spilled across the border in the guise of “beat music,” which was initially tolerated in the GDR. The West German “Cold War Liberals” learned to live with the unruly behavior of youths, called Halbstarke, but the East German Communists resisted Americanized youth styles, because they considered them decadent and preferred to orient themselves toward the Soviet model. While Western artists domesticated Americanization by creating their own adaptations, the repressive response of the SED politicized American influences in the East, creating endless friction with rebellious youths and restless intellectuals. These changes in culture and leisure habits increased the trend toward secularization, with Western Protestant denominations losing 3.5 million members and Catholics witnessing an erosion of rituals and a steep decline in the observance of mass. In the East, the SED’s promotion of atheism decreased church membership even further.
The most dramatic expression of rising affluence in West Germany was the increase in vacation travel, first within the country and eventually across Europe and the rest of the world. Due to its restrictive border regime and lack of Western currency, the GDR forced its citizens into subsidized, union-organized vacation travel within its own borders, at best allowing trips to neighboring socialist states that accepted Eastern marks. In contrast, West Germans traveled in droves to the sunnier climes of Southern Europe, spending about three times more money abroad than foreign tourists visiting the FRG, and thereby helping to reduce the trade surplus accumulated by industrial exports. To minimize international resentment against the flood of German tourists, the federal government even issued advice as to how NOT to behave like a stereotypical Teuton, flaunting the powerful DM abroad. The allure of travel was so strong that West Germans became the most numerous and economically potent tourists in the international vacation trade by the mid-1980s, a development that partially contributed to their becoming more cosmopolitan in the long run. Due to a shortage of foreign currency, East Germans were compelled to spend their leisure time closer to home, therefore staying more provincially German.