Study finds Swiss values losing ground

The study says the Swiss are moving away from traditional values such as community spirit Keystone

Life in Switzerland has changed profoundly over the past 30 years, says a report from the Swiss National Science Foundation. The report's authors say the Swiss now place more value on individual rights, and less on community spirit.

This content was published on June 20, 2000 minutes

The report collated research from surveys into all aspects of Swiss life over the last three decades. Some of the findings are not a big surprise; the fact that more women now work has naturally affected their role in society, and it has changed family structures.

In addition, both men and women are seeking more flexible of ways of working, in order to share family life more. Christian Suter of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology says that despite this evolution, the traditional Swiss work ethic remains largely unchanged.

"The Swiss still regard work as very important," he said. "The image of the Swiss as people who like to work is still accurate, but how they work is different. They want more responsibility, but less hard physical work, and perhaps shorter hours."

Furthermore, success in life is seen as very much dependent on the individual. "If someone didn't do well we tended to blame society," Suter added. "Now we're much more likely to say it's the individual's fault. We have a lot less solidarity with others than we used to."

The report also reflected changing concerns among the population. In the 1980s and early 1990s the Swiss said they were most worried about drugs, the environment and unemployment. Today, the top concerns are foreigners, and Switzerland's relationship with Europe.

On the political front the Swiss are more individual too. Andreas Ladner, a political scientist at Berne University, says people are not voting as often. "We used to vote every time there was a referendum or an initiative," he said. "Now, we tend to vote when we are interested in a particular issue."

More worrying for Switzerland's system of direct democracy is the decline in membership of political parties, and the lack of interest in community politics. "This is a big problem," said Ladner. "Our system needs a lot of people to stand for all the different public offices, and people are just not so interested any more. What it means is that it is always the same groups of people making the decisions."

Ladner also points out that the right wing has lost faith in the government. "This is completely different from 30 years ago, when it was the left who did not trust elected officials. But the right wing, especially the Swiss people's party, is resisting social change, and so it mistrusts a government which tries to make changes."

Christian Suter says the tension between the desire for change among large sections of the population, and the resistance to change from the right wing, could pose a problem for the future.

"Men and women want to work more flexibly; often their employers require it of them," he said. "But the social institutions such as schools, child care and so on, have not really changed. To my mind this is the biggest problem."

The social changes experienced by Switzerland in the last 30 years are not entirely unexpected, but they do sound a note of warning to politicians. It indicates that they should make an effort to persuade voters to participate in Switzerland's direct democracy, and that they should not allow the reform of Swiss institutions to lag behind the aspirations of the people.

by Imogen Foulkes

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