| Publications | Analyses & Studies | Experiencing change
Prof. Dr. Andreas Boes ISF Munich | Professor of Sociology, Technical University of Darmstadt
Thomas Lühr ISF München

Digitalisation is intrinsically linked to significant changes in the private and work environment. This results from a socio-scientific study conducted by bidt among people of varying ages and backgrounds.

Without people’s trust, but also without their commitment, the path to a digital society will not succeed. On the question of how people experience digital transformation, the research to date does not paint a uniform picture. Instead, the talk of a new “German Angst” haunts the public debate like a mantra.

In the #UmbruchErleben study, people were asked about their experiences. For this purpose, 35 in-depth interviews with women and men in different social situations and social positions were conducted and analysed. The central questions were: What role does the digital transformation play in their private lives as well as in their working world, and what significance do they attribute to it in relation to society as a whole? What changes do they experience, and how do they evaluate them?

The interviews show that people are by no means in a state of rigidity in the face of digitalisation. Rather, they are struggling for their future and a positive development of the digital transformation. Instead of continuing to treat them as “scaredy-cats”, it is important to shape this path into the digital society as a joint productive learning process that makes people want to look forward to the future.

The results of the project are published in two publications:

  • bidt Analyses and Studies: #UmbruchErleben — How do people experience digital transformation? (Long version of the study with extensive empirical material, prepared in illustrative case studies)
  • bidt Impulse: Lust for the Future? How people experience the digital transformation (short summary of the most important results of the study and impulses for shaping the digital transformation)

The most important facts in brief

The public debate is dominated by the view that people in Germany are rather sceptical about digitalisation. A new “German Angst” is causing the Federal Republic to fall behind in terms of digital transformation because negative attitudes in the population are hindering technological progress in the economy and society. In reality, however, there is little clarity about what people in this country really think about digitalisation. Although there are already numerous studies on the perception and evaluation of digital transformation, these do not fit into a coherent overall picture.

As part of the explorative research project #UmbruchErleben, we therefore conducted extensive interviews with people themselves about their experiences of digital transformation. The aim was not only to find out how they evaluate the change but also to understand, in particular, what structures their experience in detail, i.e. what is decisive for their attitude.

Digitalisation has long since arrived in the consciousness of the population.

It plays a central role in the current working world and in private everyday life, as well as in the development of individual future prospects. People associate digitalisation not only with more or less extensive technological developments but, above all, with fundamental social changes. The experience of a social upheaval proves to be decisive for the experience of digitalisation.

The experience of the digital transformation is very complex and cannot be generalised in the sense of a new “German Angst”.

Some interviewees perceive digitalisation as a threat in the world of work, for example, while it is perceived as a great benefit in private life. Overall, the interviewees paint a picture of a society that is looking for a positive development of digital transformation. It is not the “German Angst” that determines people’s attitude towards the digital transformation, but the struggle for a future worth living.

The effects on one’s own ability to act play a central role in perception.

The study is particularly revealing with regard to the question of why people experience digital transformation negatively or positively. Often, reference is made to socio-demographic characteristics, according to which, for example, younger men with high incomes and higher qualifications are more often open to digitalisation than, for example, older and less qualified women. Our results, on the other hand, indicate that whether the digital transformation is experienced more in a scenario of fear or hope depends essentially on how people assess the effects on their own ability to act and what experiences they have in this regard.

Thus, this exploratory study not only lays an important foundation for further research but also sets decisive impulses for the debate on the design of digital transformation. In particular, it underlines how central the participation of people is for the success of the digital transformation. The concept of “empowerment” is a promising approach to strengthening people’s ability to act in the world of work, which must be further developed into a political guideline for shaping the digital transformation of society.

Impulses for shaping the digital transformation

Desire for the future

Overall, the results make it clear that recourse to the topos of “German Angst” leads to a dead end in the debate about successfully shaping the digital transformation.

This is also associated with the danger that those who experience the development as a threat will get the impression that they are being treated in the public debate like little children whose worries are being blasphemed from above. Just as such blaming would not help a child to overcome their fears, the topos of “German Angst” does not help to support those people in their struggle for a successful future who see their ability to act threatened by the current course of the digital transformation.

It is more likely that these people will isolate themselves as a result and get lost on the way to the digital society. Especially since such blaming divides society: into some who see themselves as winners and others who are seen as losers. Learning together how society can sustainably and successfully shape the digital transformation is blocked in such a constellation.

Instead of reinforcing unproductive blaming, the aim must, therefore, be to promote a productive learning process in society that creates an appetite for the future.

With our study, we can give three important impulses for this:

  1. The study shows how great the challenges associated with digital transformation are from most people’s point of view. For politics, it is, therefore, advisable to create spaces in which people can also articulate their fears and concerns in order to open up the opportunity to develop a productive approach to it in society. It is important to understand subjective reservations not as a blockade, but as a “productive force” in the learning process on the way to the digital society.
  1. The study finds that both the positive and the negative basic attitude towards digital transformation is essentially due to whether people can incorporate this development into their lives in the sense of a positive expectation of the future. For politics, it is important to integrate both the optimistic and those members of society who have currently lost confidence in the future in shaping the digital transformation. This requires an overarching goal that is also clearly recognisable in the public sphere: the creation of a digital society worth living in, in which all people can benefit from the possibilities of digitalisation.
  1. The study shows that it is ultimately people’s own ability to act that structures their attitude to the digital transformation. In this way, it orients policy-makers to a strategic point where they can start: expanding people’s ability to act and society as a whole. With the concept of “empowerment”, there is already a promising approach to strengthening agency in the world of work (Boes et al., 2020). This approach of democratic participation must be further developed beyond the world of work to become a political guideline for shaping the digital transformation of society as a whole.