Between digitalization and a shortage of skilled workers

Construction worker at the building site of the new campus of the University of
Construction worker at the building site of the new campus of the University of Jena at Inselplatz. Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

Roughly nine out of ten Thuringians are convinced that democracy is the best form of government. However, the citizens of the Free State are less and less satisfied with their experience of democracy. This is a key finding of the Thüringen-Monitor 2023, which researchers from the University of Jena presented to the Thuringian state government on 16 April 2024.

According to the survey, satisfaction with the practice of democracy has declined for the third year in a row; to only around 45 per cent. The Thuringian population’s loss of trust in the federal and state governments is even more pronounced. Only 17 per cent, i.e. not even one in five, express confidence in the federal government - in the case of the Thuringian state government, this figure is close to one in three (30 per cent).

"This dissatisfaction can be attributed to the effects of the multiple crises caused by wars, climate change and inflation, and to a return to pre-coronavirus levels after the pandemic years. However, it also results from current challenges in the labour market," says Marion Reiser, the scientific director of the Thüringen-Monitor. Together with her team from the Institute of Political Science at the University of Jena and the Centre for Research on Right-Wing Extremism, Civic Education and Social Integration (KomREX), she has examined topics relating to the transformation in the labour market within this year’s focus topic: How do Thuringians perceive the challenges posed by digitalization and the shortage of skilled workers? How strongly do they feel affected by these developments and what impact do they have on attitudes towards democracy, populism and right-wing extremism?

Digitalized labour market and "digital divide"

Around three quarters of employees in Thuringia now use digital tools on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the results of the latest monitor reveal a "digital divide" among the Thuringian population: More than half of Thuringians fear being left behind as digital technologies develop. Four out of five respondents also stated that they are often unsure whether information from social media is fake.

"The feeling of lacking digital skills is strongly linked to social inequality," explains Dr Anne Küppers, one of the authors of the Thüringen-Monitor. "It is mainly expressed by older and formally less educated people and those with a lower income in rural regions." In order to prevent these groups of people from being left behind as digitalization continues, the researchers conclude that it is important to promote digital skills.

How can we tackle the shortage of skilled workers?

Whether they are looking for tradespeople, specialist doctors or nurses - four out of five Thuringians say they are experiencing the shortage of skilled workers in their everyday lives. Three quarters of working respondents are also directly affected by the shortage of skilled labour in their workplace. Accordingly, respondents were unanimously in favour of measures to counteract the shortage of skilled workers, such as making the region more attractive for employees, providing more training for the unemployed and low-skilled and achieving better pay in sectors with a shortage of skilled workers.

Two thirds of respondents also support the immigration of foreign skilled workers. "Even among those with right-wing populist attitudes, half are in favour of such immigration as well as a better welcoming culture for foreign skilled workers," emphasizes Prof. Reiser. From the researchers’ perspective, this suggests that xenophobic reservations could be overcome, especially if the economic benefits for the region and Thuringia as a business location are highlighted more clearly.

Right-wing extremism has risen to pre-corona levels

At 19 per cent, the prevalence of right-wing extremist attitudes in Thuringia has risen significantly compared to previous years and - following a decline during the coronavirus pandemic - corresponds to the average figure for the years 2007 to 2019. This increase is primarily the result of a significant rise in ethnocentrism, which is now shared by 41 per cent of Thuringians, who - in addition to xenophobic positions - agree with statements such as "What our country needs today is a firm and decisive assertion of German interests towards foreign countries".

At the same time, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration attitudes have also increased. More than half of Thuringians believe that "Germany is dangerously over-foreignized" due to the large number of foreigners. "Such reservations are also widespread in the social mainstream in Thuringia," summarizes Prof. Reiser. According to the Thüringen-Monitor team’s recommendation, this should be countered with increased efforts in political education and prevention in order to increase the population’s resilience to anti-democratic tendencies.