Opinion
01.02.19

3 Questions for Klaus Hurrelmann: What motivates activist Gen Z?

Kids are skipping school to demonstrate for climate policies, but will it last?

On recent Fridays, more and more young people have been following the appeal of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to skip school and participate in demonstrations in Germany's capital. The "Fridays for Future" movement is part of a renewed political engagement among the youth,  says Professor of Public Health and Education Klaus Hurrelmann. But will it last? In a short interview with the Hertie School Communications team, Hurrelmann offers his insights into this movement.

Why do these young people feel so strongly about the environment – what is motivating them to become politically engaged?

Generation Y, people born before 2000, is a generation of young people who were very focused on establishing their careers. They grew up in times of youth unemployment and economic crisis. They were busy securing their own economic existence and had to invest a lot in their education as well, which proved to be an obstacle to political involvement. This new Generation Z, born after 2000, has not had to contend with these existential issues. They are being courted by companies and employers at a moment of greater economic prosperity. This seems to give them the freedom to consider and act on political issues that they care about. The environment and global warming are at the forefront because they concern our existence in the natural world. This is an intuitive concern many young people are passionate about.

Can you draw any similarities between the German youth movement that led to the founding of the Green Party in 1980? And what sets this generation apart?

It does in fact bear resemblance to the anti-nuclear movement, which ultimately led to the party's founding of the Greens in the 1980s. The situation was similar to today: A time of great prosperity and job safety allowed people the freedom to consider post-material values ​​and issues pertaining to the quality of life. Clean water, clean air and clean soil were the manifestation of a good quality of life. That remains the case today. It is questionable whether the young people today will exhibit the same militant and aggressive tendency as back then, when the rebellious political generation of the 1960s was still part of the collective memory.

What’s the best way for young people to exact change from government – even before they are allowed to participate as voters? (any examples?)

Historically, environmental movements have been successful when they strike a chord with the public, have clear messages and public figures who lead them, and have the long-term staying power to aggressively enforce their political agendas. It is notable that the current movement is being driven by young people who are still in school, rather than students. Although they have no right to vote, they can still exert their influence over a crucial political issue, but only if they can inject their movement with the necessary spirit and aggressiveness to make it last.

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