Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The mountainous landscape of much of German Switzerland makes over a quarter of its land area unproductive for agriculture. Even Before the addition of more modern agricultural aids, there was rarely little more than subsistence farming in the mountain areas. The agro-pastoralism of pre-twentieth century Switzerland gave rise to much that is considered "Swiss"—community, cooperative labor, frugality, provincialism—peasant values born out of a unique adaptation to a harsh environment. The shift away from agriculture is reflected in a comparison of 1860 and 1980 agricultural population percentages: 43.6 versus 6.2, for the German Swiss cantons. Nonetheless, Switzerland as a whole produces more than half its food. This output comes principally from the plateau, while the Rhone Valley is a major fruit and vineyard area. Stock farming is the most important part of agriculture, which results in two-fifths of the arable land being devoted to pasture, alpine or otherwise. As a result of this emphasis, milk and its by-products—especially cheeses—form the major agricultural export. Swiss wines are rarely exported and there are heavy subsidies for this and other agricultural products provided by the government.
Industrial products are four-fifths of the commercial output of Switzerland. The bulk of this is centered in German Switzerland at Zurich, Winterthur, Basel, and Oerlikon. The major products are chemicals and pharmaceuticals (Basel), with engineering, armaments, and optical products manufactured at the other centers.
Banking and insurance are major industries with principal centers in the German Swiss areas. Swiss industry is depauperate in raw materials and energy, with the exception of electricity. As a result, Swiss industry competes in foreign markets on the basis of quality rather than price. Because of its reliance on world markets, Swiss industry emphasizes English as the language of world commerce. As a rule, most German Swiss engaged in commerce are bilingual in English rather than any of the national languages.
Division of Labor. German Switzerland emphasizes a traditional division of labor by sex. As in all Western countries, this division has been modified with women playing roles in all elements of Swiss society. Increasingly, women work outside the home, particularly in the urbanized cantons of the plateau. In the more conservative mountain cantons, the traditional roles were more varied as cooperative labor was necessitated by subsistence agricultural practices. Today, with men of these cantons involved in trade, the woman's roles have centered on the home or jobs in tourist-related fields, such as hostelry. Women work as nurses, teachers, and shopkeepers in rural areas and are part of industry, notably watch-making and electronics in the urban zones. Young German Swiss are encouraged to follow the pattern of a Welschlandjahr, a period of apprenticeship or domestic service outside German Switzerland. Both sexes participate in this practice.
Land Tenure. Land is a limited commodity in German Switzerland as it is in the whole country. Dense population in the plateau and continued emigration from the mountain areas has increased property values throughout. Maintenance of property rights through inheritance predominates. In the rural areas, land has passed to developments or otherwise is not used for agriculture. "Alp rights," or access to pastures, are sold to urban dwellers to build chalets or homes for vacations. Decentralization of industry has produced industrial plants in smaller towns throughout the plateau and even the alpine foreland. Housing access, particularly in urban areas like Zurich, has led to unrest among younger German Swiss. While not necessarily a "landless" stratum, they represent a result of changes in land tenure and usage in modern German Switzerland. Property can be owned by non-Swiss, but it is controlled both by federal and cantonal regulations to limit foreign penetration.