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EXPLAINED: Why is Austria so rich?

Austria is generally seen as a rich country, and its cities often rank top in quality of life. But where did all this money come from?

vienna hofburg palace austria
Vienna's Hofburg, one of the many beautiful and opulent buildings of the imperial city. (Photo by Andreas ***** on Unsplash)

Austrians certainly enjoy a good quality of life, and the country has a strong economy that has helped it deal with crises such as the euro crisis in 2010 and the coronavirus pandemic.

According to data from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Austria’s gross domestic product (GDP) is on par with the organisation’s best performers, and inequality is lower than in most advanced countries.

When it comes to GDP per capita, Austria is among the top 20 in the world, according to the World Bank.

Several other indicators also show how rich the country is – including the fact that about 72 percent of people aged 15 to 64 in Austria have a paid job, above the OECD employment average of 66 percent.

Homes are also doing well in Austria. The average household net adjusted disposable income per capita is $ 37,001 a year, higher than the OECD average of $30,490.

Household net adjusted disposable income is the amount of money a household earns each year after taxes and transfers. It represents the money available to a home for spending on goods or services.

But how did Austria get so rich?

It goes back a long time

Though we don’t want to start a history lesson, it’s important to mention that Austria’s rich history goes back a long time.

In the 1800s, Austria was a Central-Eastern European multinational power, ruled by the family dynasty of the Habsburgs.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why is Austria called Austria?

It became the third most populous European empire after the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom. One of its successors was the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, which formed its own empire lasting until 1918 – also ruled by the same Habsburg family.

The Dual Monarchy Empire rode the industrialisation and urbanisation age, lagging when compared to drivers such as Germany and Britain, but still investing in its growing industries, focusing on maintaining a positive trade balance.

The Austro-Hungarians became powerhouses for manufacturers, mainly exporting electrical products such as home and industrial appliances, both still important economic sectors today.

A large territory also helped the empire source raw materials, find labour and consumers, diversify productions, and think of important investments such as an extensive railway system.

The wars and rebuilding

Since the days of the empire, Austria has suffered from the effects of the two World Wars, also fought on its own soil. From the first war, the Austrian Empire lost more than half of its territory and dealt with significant economic barriers.

READ ALSO: 11 maps that help you understand Austria today

It could have been worse. Hungary, which had stood as a state for almost 1,000 years before the First World War, lost more than 70 percent of its territory, nearly two-thirds of its population, and most of its natural resources.

With the end of the Great War came the end of the age of empires and the Habsburg era.

The country also suffered from the turbulence and losses of the Second World War – including the death and expulsion of most of its vibrant Jewish community. To this day, Austria and Austrians are still trying to atone for the horrors of those years.

In 1945, Soviet troops liberated Vienna, and the country went on to once again be a democratic republic. Still, rebuilding was just starting out, as Austria emerged from the war as poor as any devastated European country.

The Marshall plan

The European Reconstruction Plan, also known as the Marshall plan after the US Secretary of State who brought it after the Second War, was an integral piece of the “economic miracle” that many European countries, including Austria, went through.

But even before the plan was in place, international help was crucial to post-War Austria. Starting with food supplies and going all the way to financial aid, with the US financing almost 90 percent of Austrian imports from 1945 to 1947, the country wouldn’t have recovered so soon without assistance from the Allies and the United Nations.

READ ALSO: Vienna Nazi art show seeks to address Austria’s WWII legacy

A lot of the cash coming in from the Marshall plan was channelled to state-run companies and the public sector to fund public employment and social welfare. Many significant industries were nationalised.

To this day, jobs and government assistance are cornerstones of the alpine country. They guarantee that consumption remains steady even during a recession. Austrians’ basic needs will always be covered, so they know they can buy what they want and keep some savings aside.

Industries and the service sector

In the 1970s, Austria went through a reform period, with large amounts of public spending and investments in the industrial sector.

The country still has a robust export-focused industry and many specialised small and medium businesses.

The sector represents about 25 per cent of Austria’s GDP and employs 25 per cent of its active population. The primary industries are metal, electrochemistry, engineering, and food and luxury commodities.

The country is also rich in natural resources, especially iron ore, magnesite, and other minerals. In addition, it produces petroleum and natural gas but also needs to import some. A considerable part of its energy comes through hydroelectric power, making it a leader in the field in the European Union.

Agriculture is not a leading participant in Austria’s GDP, especially since not even half of the alpine country could yield crops. However, Austrians have focused on quality. As a result, the number of organic farms in the Western lands has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.

Austria’s primary economic sector is service, which contributes to almost 63 per cent of the gross domestic product and employs more than 70 per cent of its active population.

One in every six jobs is in the tourism sector, which also brings a lot of foreign money to the country. With its different landscapes, beautiful towns, numerous offers for hotels and gastronomy, and renowned winter resorts, Austria certainly attracts international currencies through a developed tourist sector.

One of the most important things for Austrian prosperity after the wars was its stability.

It did not fall under Soviet rule; on the contrary, in 1955, it was granted sovereign status in exchange for a neutral military position, and it has been a democratic republic ever since, despite some significant political scandals.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

The social welfare of its economy allows it to maintain stability and low unemployment rates. In addition, its exports, services, and high taxes (especially on luxury goods) enable it to keep a positive trade balance and low debt to GDP ratio.

With that combination, Austria could also protect its economy even during crises: financial, euro, refugee, corona. Through all different types of global difficulties, the Austrian government has kept social benefits and extended cushioning measures, with some exceptions.

Most recently, the short-term work scheme during Covid, or even one-off payments to offset the increasing cost of living.

Not everything is perfect, however

Things are not perfect in Austria. As it has been abundantly clear in the last few weeks, the country is highly dependent on a few suppliers for natural gas, which is used for industrial processes and heating households.

And the Ukrainian war’s consequences have increased the cost of living internally as energy prices soar.

READ ALSO: Is Austria set for a gas price hike – and what can you do to avoid it?

Besides that, like many European countries, Austria has an ageing population and a pension time bomb problem in its hands. People are not entering the workforce in numbers high enough to contribute to the system and help growth.

All of this has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the alpine country has managed to deal with the crisis better than many countries, especially with its public health system and social payments.

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For members


ANALYSIS: Can Austria’s government get inflation under control?

While other EU countries have seen inflation rates decreasing, Austria's remains high. So what is the government doing to control it and why is it failing?

ANALYSIS: Can Austria's government get inflation under control?

With inflation of 10.9 percent last month, Austria ranks at the top of all Western European countries. The average inflation rate in the 27 EU member states was 9.9 percent in February 2023

Experts and politicians, in general, agree on the causes for this worrisome development, blaming rising energy prices on the European market due to the war in Ukraine, wide-ranging sanctions imposed against Russia, and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

READ ALSO: High inflation: What’s keeping prices high in Austria?

What they disagree about, however, is how to fight and fix the persistent inflation problem in the long run. 

While economic experts and relevant social partners like Austria’s Chamber of Labour openly support price regulation and market intervention, the ÖVP-Green coalition government remains hesitant, emphasising that inflation is expected to drop in the coming months anyway. 

Experts warn against Austria’s ‘scattergun approach’

Over the past few months, the federal and regional governments have decided to support the Austrians with bonus payments. In March 2022, a €2 billion relief package was unveiled to fight rising costs of living. 

It included an energy bonus of €150 per household, a climate bonus of €500, an increased family allowance, a bonus for retired citizens as well as an electricity price brake between €400 and €800. In Vienna, about 600,000 households received an additional energy bonus of €200. 

READ ALSO: Tax cuts and bonus payments: Austria’s financial measures that will benefit people this year

Peter Hanke, executive councillor of finance in Vienna, has recently announced that 90 percent of the households in the capital are going to benefit from another €200 bonus as of April 11th this year – just before citizens are to expect another rent increase of about 8.6 percent, according to the Austrian Chamber of Labour.

Experts speak of a “scattergun approach” of distributing bonus payments in the middle of a crisis that is also affecting the middle class. Some feel concerned that this way of dealing with the issue may prove less effective and that the country could eventually get trapped in a vicious circle.   

One of these critics is Kurt Bayer, former Board Director at the World Bank. In a commentary published in the newspaper Der Standard, Bayer stressed that compensating enterprises and households with financial aid would be costly and inefficient as the problem itself would not be solved. 

READ ALSO: Austria to drop all Covid restrictions by the end of June

With such a compensation policy, he sees strong parallels to the strategy applied during four lockdowns in the Covid pandemic. Austria’s Covid management, especially its testing scheme, has cost more than €4 billion while health experts confirm that Austria hasn’t gotten through the pandemic any better than other EU countries that spent less money.

Bayer insists that inflation compensation has only increased consumer demand so far and will not make prices drop again soon. He also adds that certain corporate subsidies are climate damaging. 

The Klimabonus was also be sent via €500 voucher. (The Local)

Austria’s government against the ‘Iberian model’

Bayer prefers what has been called the “Iberian model”, a price reduction and price control mechanism successfully applied in Spain and Portugal. Energy specialists from the Austrian Energy Agency conducted an “Empirical Analysis of the Iberian Price Cap” in December 2022. Austria’s Chamber of Labour now demands a state intervention strategy by implementing energy caps across the European Union. It refers to the findings of two research studies claiming that Austria’s inflation could be reduced by at least a quarter. 

READ ALSO: How could Austria’s new electricity price brake benefit you?

The ÖVP-Green government coalition refuses state intervention and opposes energy caps, claiming that this would only increase energy consumption. 

The government remains less optimistic about other control mechanisms, as well. Austrian Labour Minister Martin Kocher (ÖVP), for instance, emphasised the importance of maintaining market competition. He says a “low price guarantee” on groceries, like in France, could cause supply shortages. 

Inflation crisis has strongest impact on elections

With the ongoing inflation crisis in Austria, the number of angry citizens who feel left alone by the government and choose protest votes is growing. In the January elections in Lower Austria, the right-wing FPÖ came out as a winner with almost 10 percent of votes gained compared to five years ago. The nationalist party is now a junior partner of the ruling ÖVP in Lower Austria. 

READ ALSO: Why it really matters who the new governor of Lower Austria will be

In Carinthia, where elections took place at the beginning of this month, the ruling SPÖ lost 9 percent of their voters. This comes as a surprise because, in times of inflation and financial instability, the Social Democrats historically gained supporters. However, internal struggles in the SPÖ have damaged the party’s popularity and driven voters to the FPÖ, a traditional right-wing protest party. 

Analysts agree that the key motivation in the elections was the high inflation in Austria. People with lower income and those who can hardly make ends meet tend to vote for SPÖ and FPÖ, according to a SORA poll

Other reasons for so-called “protest voters” were dissatisfaction with the health system and anti-Covid measures (including a mandatory Corona vaccination law that was scrapped after waves of protest last year) and, to a lesser degree, migration and asylum policies. 

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

On April 23rd, federal elections will be held in Salzburg. A recent poll predicts moderate losses for the ÖVP and an increase for the FPÖ compared to the Social Democrats. 

Surprisingly, the survey doesn’t rule out that the Communist Party could enter parliament in Salzburg. This would be another clear sign showing the loss of confidence in a government still struggling to control inflation in Austria.


Stefan Haderer is the author of the book “Perspektivenwechsel: Beobachtungen im Jahrzehnt des Wandels 2011-2022” (KPD 2023), a compilation of his political analyses published in the Austrian daily “Wiener Zeitung”.