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Time of opportunity instead of compulsory service

Since the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022, there has been renewed discussion in Germany about a general compulsory service. In the summer, Federal President Steinmeier spoke out in favour of introducing a "compulsory social service". At the beginning of November, he even suggested compulsory service across all ages. Prior to that, the CDU had decided at its 35th federal party congress in September to advocate the introduction of a compulsory "social year". However, the implementation of the project of such compulsory service to the state and society has met with a number of objections and concerns. A stronger emphasis on benefits and opportunities for the individual and a more flexible time frame could remedy the situation.

Different terms – one idea

Social year, compulsory service, Germany year: many terms stand for the same idea. The idea is that after leaving school, young adults should be obliged to do service for society – in a cultural, ecological or charitable institution, in civil protection or in the military. Currently, this is possible on a voluntary basis within the framework of the Federal Volunteer Service, the Voluntary Military Service and the Voluntary Social or Ecological Year. With the Russian war of aggression, however, the debate about turning away from voluntary service and introducing a compulsory social year has received renewed attention. Proponents hope that this will lead to more resilience in society, a revaluation of the Bundeswehr and civilian aid organisations and, last but not least, a strengthening of social ties.


Problems of compulsory service

However, the idea of compulsory service remains controversial. Critical voices argue that it represents an inadmissible interference in the individual life plans or freedoms of young people. The armed forces, social services and aid organisations would also need more financial and political support, not unwilling and unqualified service volunteers. By introducing such a service, the state would also be acting in an overreaching manner and imposing a work obligation that is questionable from a fundamental rights point of view. These financial, political and legal hurdles could be overcome according to some experts. The image problem of "service" would remain. The dictionary associates the verb "to serve" with the fulfilment of duty, military service or an activity in someone's service, i.e. for the benefit of others. This is difficult to convey to young people. Yet community service is about more than just giving.


To give and to take

Several analyses, including a study on the benefits of community service in Austria from 2019, prove that service to society not only serves the general public. Also to community service participants individually, it brings significant benefits through the acquisition of professional and social skills, but also for personal development. However, many young people are not aware of the existing voluntary service opportunities and their added value, and some segments of the population are not even reached by the existing offers. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that benefit and cost trade-offs as well as lack of awareness of voluntary services, among others in disadvantaged segments of the population, lead to untapped potential. A commitment would involve everyone. In the context of such a "service for all", people would work together across milieus for a good cause, thereby breaking down prejudices and thus broadening personal horizons. It is also known from youth research that there is a widespread desire among young people for a meaningful activity, but also a lack of orientation after leaving school. Through compulsory community service as a phase of orientation and opportunity, young people throughout Germany could gain valuable life experiences, gain insight into certain occupational profiles and acquire new knowledge and skills. Accordingly, current studies show that young people in particular are very much in favour of compulsory service.


Highlighting opportunities, making times more flexible

The political implementation of the "compulsory service" project is thus faced with the challenge of emphasising the opportunities of compulsory service for the individual, which have been given too little attention in the current debate. In parts, the "compulsory service concept" must therefore be reconceptualised. According to the 2019 "u_count" study by the German Children and Youth Foundation, the duration is one of the decisive reasons why young people decide against a year of voluntary service. Instead of compulsory service that must be completed for one year at a time, flexible time models could be developed to better adapt community service to the individual life plans of young people. This could be based on experiences from the "Service nationale" in France and the voluntary military service in Germany. Promoting and emphasising opportunities and making the time frame more flexible could hence significantly improve the acceptance of the project and thus the chances of its implementation. Compulsory service would then become a time of opportunity – and that is exactly what the project should be called.

About this series

Concise, reduced to the essentials, but always highly topical. In our series "kurzum", our experts summarise an issue or problem on a maximum of two pages.