With its 10.7 million of foreign-born residents (Statistiches Bundesamt, 2011), Germany represents the country with the largest number of international migrants in Europe. The assimilation of immigrants into the national culture is one of the hottest issues that policy makers have to face. On the 16th of October 2010, during a meeting of the younger members of the Christian Democratic Union, the German prime minister Angela Merkel contributed to the controversial debate on multiculturalism in her country by stating that “the approach [building] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other… has failed, utterly failed”.
The issue of the cultural assimilation of immigrants is not confined to the German experience. As numerous recent episodes of race riots in leading European countries clearly suggest, neglecting the effects of cultural dissimilation of immigrants might lead to unstable social conditions and might inflict substantial economic losses on the host country.
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Population Economics, we study the issue of cultural assimilation from the perspective of immigrants in Germany rather than that of German citizens. In particular, we investigate the association between assimilation with the host culture and the subjective well-being of immigrants. We draw data from ten waves (1985-2003) of the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), which provide us with longitudinal information on both the economic (income, labour status) and non-economic (demographic, education, health) conditions of over 6,000 immigrants in Germany. One important feature of the survey is that it also asks immigrants to self-report on a 5-point scale their level of assimilation to the culture of both their host and native country, that is, their perceived closeness with Germany and with their home country as well as their proficiency with German and their native language. In addition, to measure subjective well-being, the questionnaire asks “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”, where the responses can range from 0 (“completely dissatisfied”) to 10 (“completely satisfied”).
The main finding of our study is the existence of a strong positive relationship between cultural assimilation and immigrants’ subjective well-being. Indeed, the self-reported level of life satisfaction is positively and significantly associated with the extent to which immigrants identify with the German culture and fluently speak the national language; identifying with the culture of their own country does not play a significant role. The positive association between assimilation with the host country and life satisfaction remains strong even after controlling for labour market variables which had been emphasised in the prior literature (employment status and income), immigrants’ individual demographic, health and socio-economic characteristics, as well as regional controls that capture external social conditions.
We also stratify our analysis by differentiating immigrants according to the time since immigration. Assimilation with the German culture emerges as significantly associated with the level of life satisfaction only for second-generation and “established” immigrants who migrated to Germany more than 10 years ago. For recent immigrants who have been in Germany for less than 10 years, by contrast we find a significant negative relationship between their subjective well-being and the extent to which they identify with their native culture, confirming the apparent difficulties that immigrants experience when first exposed to the (different) culture of the host country.
From a policy perspective, our study suggests that immigration policies should be designed to foster the assimilation of immigrants into the culture of the host country. Interventions aimed at easing the difficult transition of immigrants into the new society (e.g., language courses, interventions to limit ethnic enclaves, civic and cultural activities to foster interactions between immigrants and natives) may have great potential for increasing the well-being of immigrants.
This post has been jointly written by Viola Angelini, Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Econometrics and Finance of the University of Groningen, Laura Casi, Senior Research Analyst at The Nielsen Company and Research Fellow at ISLA, Bocconi University, and Luca Corazzini, Full Professor of Economics at the University of Messina, and Research Fellow of ISLA, Bocconi University.
Angelini, V., L. Casi, L. Corazzini, (2015). Life Satisfaction of Immigrants: Does Cultural Assimilation Matter? Journal of Population Economics, 28(3), 817-844.
Statistiches Bundesamt. (2011). 10,7 Millionen Migranten aus 194 Ländern leben in Deutschland. [Press release]. Available from: