Swiss Worry Barometer Worry Barometer: The 40-Year Anniversary

Worry Barometer: The 40-Year Anniversary

The Credit Suisse Worry Barometer has studied the concerns of the Swiss people since 1976. The launch of the survey was groundbreaking, and it has continuously offered unique insights into the changes in what has been on Switzerland's mind over the years. René Buholzer has analyzed the 11 most important developments.

In 1976 Mao Zedong died in office. Helmut Schmidt won the election for Federal Chancellor over Helmut Kohl in Germany; Jimmy Carter prevailed over the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in the US. Czechoslovakia won the European Football Championship. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. Milton Friedman received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

And in Switzerland? Lugano had over 2,046 hours of sunlight, and ABBA dominated the charts with "Fernando." In 1976, around 6.3 million people lived here, foreigners accounting for 15.6 percent. Rudolf Gnägi (BGB/SVP) became President of the Swiss Confederation once again after first being elected to that office in 1971. Yet the mood was somber in the late '70s. Oil prices had yet to recover following the first oil crisis (1973), and RAF terrorism had now reached Switzerland. There were initiatives against "foreign penetration" and unemployment was on the rise.

It was visionary that they collected representative opinions of the populace, and in this way, the survey did not follow the rhythm of a vote.

Credit Suisse (Schweizerische Kreditanstalt at the time) commissioned the public opinion research firm Isopublic to conduct a survey with "a scientific method" "among all segments of the population." The objective: To find out what worries the Swiss. The catchy "Worry Barometer" was chosen as its title – even if it is more like a "worry thermometer."

The purpose of the survey was to measure the public's temperature. "The idea of introducing the Worry Barometer was visionary," says political scientist Lukas Golder, co-director of gfs.bern, the company that has conducted the study since 1995. "At that time, public opinion research was slowly emerging and was dominated by market and consumer research. Another reason it was visionary is that they collected representative opinions of the populace, and in this way, the survey did not follow the rhythm of a vote," says Golder. "The results were provided to the public. Up until that time, the preconception prevailed that direct democracy provided enough information about public opinion."

Today, in 2016, there are several public opinion polls in Switzerland. But despite the competition, the Worry Barometer has managed to maintain its extraordinary standing. Whenever the latest edition is published, just in time for the opening of the winter session of the Swiss parliament, many politicians can be seen with their copy under their arm as they walk through the lobby of the parliament building. And many (political) initiatives begin with "X percent of Swiss citizens are very concerned about...," using a figure from the Barometer.

The basic structure of the survey's methodology has not changed throughout the years. Around 1,000 respondents are selected and interviewed in person. They are shown cards with the instructions "On these cards, you will see some topics that have been discussed and written about a lot recently: Please take a look at the cards, and pick out the five cards that you personally feel are Switzerland's greatest problems."

This year, the Credit Suisse Worry Barometer is celebrating its 40th birthday. One of the longest-standing and largest political opinion polls thus covers some of the most interesting and turbulent years of Switzerland's history. What does it reveal?

1. The Crisis Triggers Fear

The first issue of the Worry Barometer appeared in Bulletin, the world’s oldest banking magazine (since 1895). The title of the survey is a rather pedestrian one (and is phrased using only the German masculine form): "What concerns the Swiss?" Unemployment (75 percent) topped the list of worries even then, above environmental protection (73 percent) and retirement provision (64 percent).

The topics in the next spots are also familiar ones: the tax burden (51 percent), inflation (48 percent) and education (42 percent). In terms of the economy, 1976 was a tense year, something that is noticeable throughout the entire survey. Interestingly, the strong Swiss franc was a problem then just as it is today. The mention of "inflation" as a major issue went hand in hand with strong agreement (81 percent) with the statement that there is an urgent or a very urgent need to fight inflation. The study’s author interpreted this to represent the "healthy sense of stability and solidity among our people."

The biggest worries 

1976 2016
  • Unemployment
  • Environmental protection
  • Retirement provision/pensions
  • Taxes
  • Inflation
  • Education
  • Economic policy
  • Migrant workers
  • Housing construction
  • The influence of banks
  • Unemployment
  • Foreigners
  • Retirement provision/pensions
  • Refugees/Asylum
  • EU/Bilateral Agreements
  • Health
  • Euro Crisis
  • New Poverty
  • Transport/Traffic
  • Personal Security

Not surprisingly, the author was happy that 88 percent of those surveyed opposed higher taxes. Even then, the standardization of the school system was a current concern, 92 percent considered it to be urgent. Building new universities was rejected – perhaps considered too expensive? – yet subsidies for vocational schools (83 percent agreement) were supported – because this would also be a way to combat unemployment.

Not least, the 1976 Worry Barometer focused on questions about the financial center, which did very well in general. Only 27 percent were against banking confidentiality, and only 20 percent considered the banks to hold too much power, something viewed as an "exaggerated problem."

2. Part of the Swiss Identity

From an international perspective, unemployment in Switzerland has never been high, although it has frequently been the most-mentioned problem among those surveyed throughout the 40 years of the Worry Barometer. It has topped the list of worries in each of the last 10 years.

Unemployment
Unemployment

"The fear of unemployment is symptomatic of the decline of the middle class, whose members are anxious about their financial independence and social status," writes Jean Christophe Schwaab, member of the National Council representing the Social Democratic Party and former General Secretary of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions in the last issue of Compass for Switzerland, a special Credit Suisse publication on the topic. Valentin Vogt, president of the Confederation of Swiss Employers, agrees with him to the extent that the strong significance of unemployment is anything but phantom pain. "In Switzerland in particular, an individual's work and career are a vital part of his or her identity." The data support this statement. Throughout the years, those surveyed have observed the changes in the labor market very carefully. Real peaks in the unemployment rate and in gross domestic product (GDP) are directly reflected in the Worry Barometer.

3. Status Quo Too Good for Reforms

In the last ten years, over 40 percent of the Swiss consider retirement provision/AHV to be Switzerland's biggest problem; in 1976, it was 63 percent. At the same time, AHV also has a history of failed reforms. The last successful reform was 21 years ago, and the public has routinely rejected any proposals introduced since then. 2004: The 11th AHV amendment and value added tax increase for AHV/Federal Disability Insurance; 2010: Adjustment of the minimum conversion rate in the occupational pension provision. How do these things go together?

One explanation could be that, in principle, everyone can agree that something has to be done, which is why the issue ranks near the top in the Worry Barometer. Since AHV was introduced in 1948, life expectancy at birth has increased by 14.3 years (for men) and 14.0 years (for women). At the same time, the birthrate has declined from 2.40 to 1.54 (2.08 children per woman would be necessary to maintain the population balance). The population pyramid is growing less and less favorable for a contribution system like AHV. The problem has been identified, but for the majority, a "solution" is less desirable than the status quo. Older people would have to work longer or give up part of their pension. According to a study conducted by Avenir Suisse, the average age of eligible voters will be 60 by the year 2021. In other words, decisions on proposals will be made by the over-60 age group almost entirely alone. The term "pension theft" is so firmly entrenched in the collective conscience that any pension reduction is immediately considered to be a political impossibility.

Pensions

The younger generation is aware of the problem, which always ranks among the topmost of Switzerland's biggest problems in the Credit Suisse Youth Barometer. But young people alone cannot sway the vote and seem ultimately to also want to benefit from a strong first pillar. Furthermore, the AHV seems to have become part of Switzerland's success story and the Swiss identity. Finally, every 20-year-old may not be aware that he or she is among the losers under the current system – the younger age groups meanwhile are not only funding the AHV but also the overly high conversion rate in the second pillar, currently at 6.8 percent (mandatory part, planned in 2018: 6.6 percent). According to Avenir Suisse, only 5.4 percent is financeable. The status quo is also attractive because the overall principle of the pension provision made up of three pillars (federal, occupational and private pension provision) is becoming more and more effective. Those retiring after a longer period of gainful employment generally receive money from two or three sources.

Poverty in old age is on the decline, and today's poor are helped by supplementary benefits. In addition, there is health insurance, which represents a solution based on solidarity for the health issues which are a major problem with increasing age. Under the health insurance, younger people pay more than the costs that they incur, while older people pay less.

4. How to Coexist?

Coexisting with the foreign population is a consistently important theme in the Worry Barometer. In 1976, people were worried about foreign workers (32 percent, ranked 8th), then talk was of "foreign penetration"; later, one category is created for "Foreigners/free movement of persons/immigration" and a second for "Refugees/asylum issues." Although this differentiation is sometimes disregarded in the public debate, it is highly prevalent among respondents, even though the correlation between these two concerns is weak.

Foreigners

Nevertheless, there is one interdependency – but with a different indicator rooted in political realities: When the number of foreigners in Switzerland increases, worries about coexistence also grow. In addition, the respondents are highly attuned to (global) political changes influencing immigration. 

Foreigners living in Switzerland

5. Differentiated Viewpoint

Concerns about refugees are also correlated with a statistical indicator in Switzerland: the number of applications for asylum submitted. After the unemployment rate, the number of applications for asylum seems to be the number perceived most strongly and the one that elicits a direct consequence of political reaction. Accordingly, a series of restrictions on the right of asylum have been introduced over the last twenty years. But the result of this year's Worry Barometer seems to indicate that the Swiss are now more satisfied than in past years. The concern decreased – despite the many headlines on the topic of refugees – from 35 percent to 26 percent.

Refugees
Refugees

6. EU/Bilateral Agreements

Switzerland's relationship with the EU has dominated political discussions for years, and this concern was reflected in respondents' answers. But this year, "EU/bilateral agreements" ranked only sixth (22 percent). Why? Bilateral agreements are the only option capable of attaining majority support. In the Worry Barometer, 67 percent of respondents stated that it was preferable to continue this course. Most will not support a unilateral decision, much less joining the EU.

EU/Bilateral Agreements

7. Bark Beetles, etc.

From 1976 to 1991, environmental protection was always among the top three concerns, but it has since become less pressing. In 2007, the issue was mentioned by only 7 percent of those surveyed. Has the problem been solved, like the drug issue? No. This trend tells another story.

The magazine "Der Spiegel" sounded the alarm in the fall of 1981. A cover illustrated by billowing smokestacks, clouds of gas and bare trees declared "Acid Rain over Germany – The Forests Are Dying." In 1983, Federal Councillor Alphons Egli paid a visit to the Baan National Forest near Zofingen where representatives of the Federal Forestry Office were learning about new symptoms of disease. Trees that would hardly be noticed by a layperson were considered by the foresters to be "at the brink of death."

Environmental protection

This example from the newspaper NZZ shows that the issue had several different aspects. First of all, environmental protection was a non-partisan issue. Egli was a Federal Councillor of the Christian Democratic People's Party, the NZZ was considered mainstream and "Der Spiegel" as social democratic. Secondly, the situation was being dramatized. Many of the problems turned out to be less serious than originally thought. Yet the goal had been achieved. People were concerned about the environment, as the Worry Barometer showed, and this concern could be used to achieve political ends, including discussing speed limits on highways and implementing car-free Sundays.

Switzerland's Green Party was founded (1983) in this climate, and the party soon reached a 6.1 percent share of the votes and 14 seats in the National Council in 1991. After a low point in the subsequent election year, the Green Party garnered 7.4 percent of the vote (13 seats) in 2003 – although environmental issues had lost ground by this time. But at least the Green Party emancipated itself somewhat from the eco-alarmism of dying forests and the like. They transformed into the left alternative party to the Social Democrats. In turn, another group of environmentalists later found their new home in the Green Liberal Party, as concerns about the environment shot upwards again, from 7 percent (2006) to 25 percent (2007).

One reason could be that Europe was affected by an unusual abundance of natural disasters that year, and the Green Party had a record election year (9.6 percent, 20 seats). In contrast, after the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima in 2011, concerns about the environment did not peak – even the worry about "energy issues/nuclear energy/security of supply" increased by a mere four percentage points.

8. Detox Successful

Between 1978 and 1994, 65 percent of respondents considered drugs to be a major problem in Switzerland. Yet this fell to only 15 percent on average from 1995 to 2016. What happened?

Hard drugs were already widespread during the unrest in the 1980s. In 1987, the public drug scene took root in Zurich. Up to 3,000 drug addicts lived in Platzspitz park near the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, an area that gained international notoriety as Needle Park. One percent of the then 24- to 25-year-old Swiss became addicted to heroin, and nearly everyone had an addict in their close family or circle of friends.

In 1991, 21 people died from drug use in Platzspitz park; another 3,600 were resuscitated after overdosing. In the following year, there were 419 drug fatalities in all of Switzerland, most of those dying from heroin use. The government reacted: The first package of measures aimed at alleviating the drug problem was introduced in 1991. Platzspitz was cleared in 1992, followed by the closure of the abandoned Letten train station – and, in effect, Zurich's last public drug scene – in 1995. A record number of political measures on drug policy were introduced in the Swiss Federal and State Councils in 1994, after which the number dwindled rapidly.

Narcotics

The drug problem was ultimately solved through a traditionally Swiss compromise consisting of four pillars: prevention, therapy, damage mitigation, and law enforcement and market controls. The radical part of this approach was the controlled dispensation of hard drugs, which made headlines around the world. The number of drug fatalities was cut by half by 1999, and the concern nearly disappeared from the Worry Barometer (2016: 10 percent).

And among today's young people, drugs are a minor issue. In the Credit Suisse Youth Barometer, which analyzes the state of 16- to 25-year-olds, the majority of respondents (53 percent) considered drugs to be "out," and they did not use them – the only thing less popular than drug use was a "cell phone without internet" (81 percent).

9. Taxes: No Longer a Problem?

In the first Worry Barometer from 1976, the tax burden was a major topic, with 51 percent worried about it, which placed it fourth among top concerns. And in a supplementary question, 88 percent rejected tax increases. In the years that followed, the topic became less important. A good 25 percent of respondents mentioned the tax burden in the 1980s, around 20 percent in the 1990s and early 2000s, and from 2009 onwards, only approximately 10 percent.

Taxes

Today, as well, the tax situation concerns 9 percent of those surveyed. Yet there is a growing focus on other government-imposed payments, especially on the annually increasing health insurance premiums. Those concerns even reached 64 percent (2001). That figure paralleled the annual increases in the premiums – here, too, the electorate was highly sensitive to changes in the relevant indicator.

The fact that taxes are no longer among the top ten concerns likely has something to do with no party or movement fully embracing the issue. Slogans referencing "taxes" were rare during last year's national elections, while they were frequently seen in the 1970s and 1980s.

Finally, the public has seldom been as unified at the ballot box as they were in the vote on the debt brake: 85 percent were in favor of requiring Switzerland to balance revenue and spending through the business cycle – a measure intended to prevent overly expansive government actions. In addition, this fiscal policy has become an international ideal and a top export.

10. Institutions of the Heart

The Worry Barometer includes not only questions about the problems of the Swiss, but also how much trust they have in the country's institutions. And when it comes to politics, this trust is very strong: 62 percent trust the Council of States, 61 percent the Federal Council, and 57 percent the National Council. Trust has increased by around ten percentage points in all three of these categories since 2010. How do these results line up internationally? For the OECD countries, the average trust in government is at 42 percent.

Trust

The most obvious explanation for the good results of Swiss politicians is that trust is built by including all relevant decision-makers. Switzerland has a well-functioning semi-professional parliament, which is among the most cost effective in Europe. This country's democracy fosters compromises that can be upheld and laws that are observed. In addition, people in Switzerland are prospering and feel secure – especially in an international comparison.

Trust in politicians is at an all-time high, while the main concerns are declining at the same time. It would seem that the public is very satisfied with the government in Berne, particularly compared to the other countries in Europe.

11. A Good Crystal Ball

Respondents have demonstrated a highly rational view of Switzerland. The various chapters illustrate that the problems mentioned in the Worry Barometer have been closely linked to actual events. So now the question: How is the forecasting ability of the Swiss? Every year they are asked to evaluate the upcoming twelve months. Will the economy get better or worse? At the same time, they are asked to describe how they felt about the last twelve months.

When these two curves are laid on top of each other and shifted by one year to superimpose the same year's forecast and review, the respondents do indeed have a very good sense of economic trends. The good news: for 2017, 22 percent of those surveyed predicted improvement (63 percent: no change; 14 percent: deterioration; 1 percent: don't know).

Over the Worry Barometer's 40 years, two factors have been decisive for how people perceive problems:

  1. Urgency: How virulent is an issue, and how intensely is it discussed in the media? Many concerns relate directly to actual events. The issue of drugs/drug use/alcohol abuse became more significant as drug fatalities increased in Switzerland. The same was the case for acid rain and environmental protection.
  2. Relevance: How important is a problem for the respondent's personal situation? Unemployment affects us deeply, and correspondingly, it ranks relatively highly even in times of a strong economy. Relevance determines a sort of basic meaning for an issue. Drugs and environmental protection, for example, are fundamentally less relevant issues. A great deal has to happen in these areas for them to rank at the top of the list.

In addition, we can observe that the concerns have become more heterogeneous over the years. Previously, there would be two or three main problems mentioned by the majority of respondents. Today, the popularity of these "main concerns" has dwindled, and many "minor" worries have been added instead. One reason for this kind of fragmentation could be the decreasing significance of the mass and leading media. There were times when the main edition of the daily news program Tagesschau reached around one million people each day. Only 600,000 viewers watch the program now – although the population has also grown during that time.

What will the next 40 years bring? Highly relevant issues will certainly be of concern in the future, too. They will be joined by other (new) issues with acute need for political action (trending topics): The educational system? Transportation?

After the Worry Barometer's first 40 years, it can be said that the original goal has more than been achieved. The survey has come to be seen as the barometer for the political sensitivities of Swiss citizens, and we can no longer do without it – not even in the lobby in Berne.