Sven Schrade doesn't look like someone who has been left behind: fashionable shirt, gold-colored wire-rimmed glasses, white sneakers. The 37-year-old spends what little free time he has in the climbing gym, but he consciously changes it when he talks. Schrade studied politics and administration in Leipzig and Jena; he could well live in one of the trendy districts of the metropolis. Instead, Schrade lives in his hometown of Schmölln, in the far east of Thuringia. What's more, he's been their mayor for seven years.
Schmölln doesn't look like a town lacking in anything basic, either. Delicatessen and bicycle shops shine in yellow and white, the first café on the square serves cream puffs and egg check, on weekends the clubs invite you to the summer festival with "sporting activities from cheerleading to kart driving". And yet there is something crucial that is missing. Something that makes them uncomfortable here and that Schrade only tells after some hesitation. The city lacks one thing in particular: young women. Or, in Schrade's words: "We have a blatant surplus of men here."
Expressed in figures: in Schmölln, which has a population of 13,000, there are just as many men as women. But there is a clear disparity among the younger generation, between 20 and 29 years old. In the city there are 132 young men for every 100 young women; one of the biggest imbalances in Germany. For comparison: the nationwide average is even slightly the opposite, with an average of 97 men for every 100 women. Schmölln is by no means an isolated case: there is also a glaring imbalance in other parts of East Germany, including Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt – especially in the 20 to 39 age group.
In some places in the East, this is a situation that is unique in the world. There are similar tendencies in Eastern Europe; in Central and East Africa, there is an even greater imbalance among young adults in some countries. But nowhere on the globe do both come together in such a concentrated way as in some places in the east of the republic - so few young people and among them so few women. What does this male dominance do to places like Schmölln? How could it come to this? And what can be done about it?
As obvious as the phenomenon is in the statistics, it is difficult to grasp on the spot. If you drive through his city with Sven Schrade, you will notice that the imbalance becomes invisible. One sees neither an unusually large number of men alone on the streets nor pure boys' cliques on the market square. Anyone who asks the locals or the equal opportunities officer of the Altenburg region, to which Schmölln belongs, always learns that the lack of women is not noticeable in everyday life.
Even researchers find it difficult to measure the gender disparity on site. For its study "Not am Mann" the Berlin Institute for Population and Development once sent employees to two small East German towns with a severe shortage of women; they asked around 50 residents about their living environment. Their conclusion: only a few of those surveyed had noticed anything about the imbalance.
This invisibility is possibly also the reason why science has only occasionally dealt with the consequences of the lack of women. "Up to now there have been hardly any studies on what such a masculinized population means for the East German municipalities," says the sociologist Steffen Mau from the Humboldt University in Berlin. He has long dealt with social changes and tensions, especially in East Germany.
When he talks about the situation in places like Schmölln, he chooses his words carefully. The topic is sensitive, Mau does not want to stir up resentment. In addition, much of what research knows about societies with a surplus of men has been studied in East Africa and Asia - and there, says Mau, things are of course different economically and culturally than between Rostock and Rudolstadt. Nevertheless, there are a few reliable findings on the consequences for the East German communities - political, demographic, social.
For example, for a study published in 2019, the Berlin Social Science Center repeatedly asked thousands of Thuringians about their satisfaction and political attitudes over a period of 14 years. Result: The more people moved away and the more women were among them, the more the residents who stayed behind believed that they were no longer an equal part of society. The study concludes that empty houses and shops and a lack of culture remind residents every day that former locals now prefer to live elsewhere.
If the women in particular were missing, the feeling was particularly strong. Other studies have shown that they act as a “social buffer” and “provide positive impetus in interpersonal situations”. As a result of the imbalance, those who remained tended to devalue other social groups in order to feel better.
The AfD and other right-wing populist micro-parties, according to sociologist Mau, took advantage of this. They created additional fear - and then presented the alleged cause of the misery: "Women usually feel deterred by the radicalism of such parties, men are attracted to them - especially the frustrated ones." almost 30 percent most votes. "Sometimes that makes me angry, because the people here actually have everything," says Schmölln's mayor Schrade, himself a member of the SPD.
Those affected also feel left behind when looking for a partner. Johannes Stauder is an expert on an “unbalanced marriage market”, as it is called in science. Between 1991 and 2018, the professor of sociology from the University of Heidelberg examined relationship behavior in all districts of Germany. He analyzed whether and when partnerships form, how long they last and how quickly a replacement can be found after a breakup.
His conclusion: In regions with an oversupply of men, people often cannot find a long-term partner at all. If two do find each other, the relationships are often more unstable. Stauder says: "The market around it continues to exist." Women still have many alternatives; the men agreed to a partner more quickly without checking whether it was really a good fit. Unconsciously, so Stauder, without being aware of the "market situation", many of them believed: "I have to take what comes."
The "state of the market" also has an impact on the demographics of the regions. A potential generation of mothers migrates with the young women. Where children are already missing, even fewer are coming. It is estimated that each generation decreases by a third. The number of newborns has shrunk by more than 40 percent in some rural regions of eastern Germany in recent years. In Schmölln, two schools had to be merged due to a lack of children. Mayor Sven Schrade hasn't had a wife or family either, although he says he wishes he had.
The drastic decline in births and the emigration of the young have another consequence: the communities are aging. This will also become an economic problem in the foreseeable future. If the baby boomers retire in the coming years, there will be a lack of those who will move up in the future. Municipalities already have to adapt to the large number of senior citizens. In the Schmölln city council, Schrade explains, the dominant questions were whether there were still enough doctors or what condition the footpaths were in – it was less often about what the younger ones needed.
Crisis communities, swaying population pyramids: The scenario drawn by the experts sounds threatening. How could it come to this, when almost the same number of boys and girls were recently born in Schmölln?
If you ask Klaus Friedrich where the women have gone, he says: "Most of them have emigrated." The social geographer from the University of Halle-Wittenberg retired in 2011, but is still a sought-after expert when it comes to the East German population. Friedrich distinguishes between two phases: In the first 15 years after the collapse of the GDR, most of its former citizens were drawn to the West; then mainly in the East German metropolises - Dresden, Leipzig, Jena.
But why did women in particular move away? Friedrich explains this with "gender-specific higher educational and professional ambitions". After reunification, the men found it easier to find work locally that met their needs; for example in crafts, in agriculture or in the motor vehicle trade. Women, on the other hand, preferred the service sector.
Their departure also has economic disadvantages for the affected regions. On the one hand, because they are losing hordes of young, highly qualified employees; the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies even speaks of an "intellectual degradation". On the other hand, because women continue to dominate in certain sectors, such as healthcare and nursing. "Significant bottlenecks" are expected. So far, the men's regions are still in a solid position economically; there is hardly any unemployment. Schmoelln is doing well too. The largest company in town, an automotive supplier, is expanding. Nevertheless, Mayor Schrade reports that many of his class moved away after high school – the women more than the men.
Now the surplus of men is not a purely East German phenomenon. Migration, declining birth rates, aging - there are also many districts in the west, in northern Hesse or in the Eifel. However, at a low level. Sociologist Salomo makes the East German special position in Thuringia clear: “If you imagine the federal state as a nation state, compared to more than 200 other countries, it would be second to last in terms of age, ahead of Japan, and sixth to last in terms of youth.” Only a few countries would have a higher figure overhang of young men. "If you bring age and gender quota together, Thuringia is unique in the world."
The question remains: Why hasn't something been done about it long ago? According to the geographer Friedrich, there are several reasons for this. On the one hand, there has been a lack of attention for a long time. On the other hand, there is a certain inertia in the nature of things: "Demographic processes are very sluggish," he explains. "What we are currently experiencing in the East are the long-term consequences of demographic developments since the fall of the Wall." Countermeasures that politicians are now taking will only be reflected in the statistics in a few years' time.
Julia Gabler knows such difficulties. The social scientist from the Zittau/Görlitz University of Applied Sciences has long been concerned with the chances of qualified women staying in rural areas. "I often hear: we need more daycare centers, then the problem will be solved," she says. This is understandable from a demographic point of view. "But the women don't want to be reduced to the role of birthing machines." Gabler himself spent a long time doing research in Lusatia, asking residents about their needs and desires. It was particularly important for the women to be mobile – by bus or train. Services of general interest, says Friedrich, must be secured: local public transport, fast internet, a village shop, and family-friendly structures - daycare centers, elementary schools, building land for young parents.
But above all, according to Gabler, there should be some improvements in professional life. The pandemic gave the home office a boost; it is much easier to live in the country and work in the city. But although young women in their East German homeland are important workers not only for care or education, but also in industry and agriculture, they often remain unseen, poorly paid - and rarely rise to the management level.
Gabler wants to change exactly that. To this end, she founded the "F wie Kraft" platform, which aims to show women new perspectives in the East German provinces: with founder workshops or "producer tours" to female entrepreneurs in the region. A Lusatian regulars' table has also been set up: for locals, those who have moved away and those who are flirting with returning. Then there would be the emergency doctor from Berlin, the artist from Essen, the scientist from Bielefeld. "They first want to play through whether that would even work before the house and farm are bought," says Gabler. At which school do I register the children, where can I have a glass of wine in the evening? But behind this is often the fundamental question: Will I feel at home here again?
We know from studies that many newcomers return to the cities after three to four years. Their ideal of life in the country is too idyllic, the reality is too quiet and unstimulating, and the village structure is too thin. According to Gabler, some therefore choose a pendulum model. "One of those affected once said: 'As soon as I'm here, I can feel why I left.'"
Gabler's plea is therefore: enable life plans. "Many women move to the city because they don't want to follow the traditional understanding of roles." Alternative models are also possible in rural areas: shared apartments, multi-generational houses, co-parenting. Equally important: the locals should identify more with their regions again. Because this identity, says Friedrich, suffered greatly in East Germany as a result of the political and social upheavals. In addition, one should not only look at the women: "It is also up to the men to create conditions to persuade the women to stay," says Gabler.
One of the women who has moved back to Schmölln in Thuringia is Sina Burkhardt, Mayor Schrade's spokeswoman. She lived in Cologne for almost 20 years and worked for RTL, among other things. The 44-year-old moved back ten years ago because of the children and grandparents. Admittedly, it's not always easy; the son had already been teased as "Wessi", on the weekends it was often "dead pants". And yet: “Those who return bring a lot of energy with them.” She herself gives social media courses for companies and is involved in the local outdoor pool. Sometimes, she says after some hesitation, looking at Sven Schrade, she wishes she had more people like her. And yes – more women too.