An elderly couple is sitting on the bench of a bus stop. Another lady is standing next to them a few meters away.

Social cohesion and the coronavirus: The fabric of society at risk

Throughout 2020, social cohesion in Germany proved largely robust. But there are growing signs that it is at risk. Both young people and those living in precarious circumstances are particularly worried about the future and experience less compassion. We must act now to counteract these developments.

As a once-in-a-century event, the coronavirus pandemic poses major challenges to our political and economic systems, but also to social cohesion. As our recent study conducted in cooperation with the infas Institute shows, cohesion in the crisis year of 2020 is proving to be relatively robust, overall. However, people under the age of 30 and in particular those with low incomes and low levels of formal education express greater pessimism about their future opportunities than do, for example, people in the middle class. The coronavirus thus threatens to exacerbate existing tensions.

Slight increase in cohesion registered in the first half of 2020

A total of 611 people were interviewed three times throughout the course of 2020 for the panel study: first in February and March, again in May and June, and a third time in December. Charting social cohesion throughout the course of the year, the study shows that social cohesion initially remained stable – until the summer. At mid-year, perceptions of solidarity in society were even more positive than those recorded at the beginning of the year. This development has been closely examined in a previous study published in August 2020. However, this trend was reversed in the second half of the year. After the introduction of the second lockdown toward the end of 2020, the reported experience of social cohesion fell back to levels reported at the beginning of the year.

We see an initial boost in cohesion during the crisis. This is most likely attributable to a sense of having survived the worst together after the first lockdown.

Kai Unzicker, social cohesion expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

Growing worries about the future and shaken confidence in the second half of the year

Measured on a scale from 0 to 10, the average score for interpersonal trust rose initially from 5.9 in February/March to 6.2 in May/June. By December, however, this positive effect disappears, and the average score drops to 5.8 – just short of the initial level recorded. Toward the end of the year, people living in precarious circumstance in particular are much more skeptical about cohesion and the future than are other groups in society. For example, by December 2020, more than one-half of respondents living in precarious circumstances (56%) express major concerns about their future. This marks an 18 percentage-point increase among this group since the summer. But the middle class, too, is also worried. By December, 41 percent in this group express deep concerns about the future, marking a 22 percentage-point increase over that recorded in May/June. Fears remain lowest among those in the highest socioeconomic group. Only 16 percent of those in this group express considerable concerns by the year’s end.

Younger generations particularly burdened

The pandemic also places a heavy burden on young people. A full two-thirds of respondents under the age of 30 express major worries about the future and 71 percent report feeling lonely. “What’s interesting and exciting, however, is that this age group also shows the highest level of support for the coronavirus measures,” explains Stephan Vopel, director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Living Values program. This finding also confirms the results of a recently published analysis of the Jugend und Corona (Youth and the Coronavirus) survey, which highlights young people’s experience with psychological issues, loneliness and fears about the future during the coronavirus.

Our study shows that the very age group that suffers the most from lockdown is resolute in its support for the pandemic response measures. I see this as a remarkable expression of societal solidarity by the younger generation.

Stephan Vopel, Director of the Living Values Program

High levels of confidence in social cohesion

On the whole, Germany enjoys a high level of confidence in social cohesion. This is also confirmed by the recent study. At the end of 2020, respondents are less likely to feel that cohesion is at risk. A comparison of responses from the first and third survey waves show a decrease in the number of those who feel cohesion to be threatened (42%), while 34 percent feel it has remained stable, and only 23 percent consider cohesion to be more at risk by December. People living in precarious living circumstances are, however, least likely to share this optimism.

A threat to democracy

We also see the potential for divisiveness in society through the prism of satisfaction with democracy. On average and across all population groups, satisfaction with the political system returned to the February/March levels by the end of 2020 after having temporarily peaked in the summer. “But here, too, it’s worth taking a differentiated look at things,” Unzicker emphasizes. Whereas overall satisfaction with democracy rose among the more highly educated, it fell among those with less education. For Unzicker, this is a worrying development: “Since the beginning of 2021 and ongoing debates over the lack of vaccines and testing capacities, we’ve seen a sharp increase in dissatisfaction with the government. Growing political disenchantment could push already marginalized groups further to the political fringe.”

Palpable change needed to strengthen cohesion

During the first few months of the fight against the coronavirus, mechanisms of solidarity and political leadership proved effective in the eyes of most respondents. But, as the pandemic progresses, particularly those living in precarious situations are reporting increasingly negative views. “We have to counteract this and help those groups that have been hit particularly hard by the crisis,” stresses Unzicker. This requires demonstrating not only empathy and acknowleding other’s suffering through symbolic action, but bringing about tangible change in the form of fair wages, state guarantees regarding education, investment in education, a stronger voice for young people in politics and demonstrating resolve in battling child poverty.