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An authority on Gen Y, Klaus Hurrelmann is also a “pop-star” in the classroom

The Hertie School’s Professor of Public Health and Education is a life-long student of adolescence.

When schoolkids have something up their sleeve, they like to keep it from the teacher. This was just the case when pupils at a school in Eschweiler, Germany, invited Hertie School Professor of Health and Education Klaus Hurrelmann to present his theory of adolescent development as a surprise for their retiring teacher.

Hurrelmann regularly visits schools to speak with young people taking sociology or pedagogy courses for their university-qualifying exam, Abitur. These 17-18-year-olds study his theory of adolescent socialisation, the Model of Productive Processing of Reality, a “meta-theory” that combines the work of generations of sociologists, educators and psychologists, outlined in Hurrelmann’s “10 Maxims”.

These “theses” describe the constant interplay between nature and nurture, and explain how young people come to understand their own identities. Hurrelmann concludes that adolescence is a distinct and unique phase of life, not just a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. Young people on the verge of adulthood naturally find the topic fascinating, and Hurrelmann says they often receive him “like a pop-star.” He gets around 20-30 requests a year, which means he can’t visit every class that wants him. But he usually manages to connect at least via email or videoconference.

The 10 Maxims 

Click for more information about the maxims.

In adolescence, personality development emerges in the interplay between inherited traits and the environment.
Socialisation– the productive processing of both internal and external reality – is especially intense in adolescence. This is a phase of pattern-building, with lifelong consequences.
Adolescents are creative designers of their own personalities, with gradually expanding capacity for responsibility and independence.
Adolescence is a time when young people begin to develop a self-identity. This emerges through a balancing of personal individuation and social integration.
The socialisation process can face a crisis if adolescents fail to reconcile the demands of individuation and integration. The formative tasks of adolescence remain unresolved, and developmental pressure builds.
To cope with developmental tasks and balance the dynamic tension between individuation and integration, adolescents need individual coping skills (“personal resources”) and social support from key reference groups (“social resources”).
Besides family, vital socialisation authorities supporting adolescent development are schools, training centres, peers, and the media.
Under modern historical, social, and economic conditions in developed societies, adolescence is a distinct phase in life, not just a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, as previously thought.
Highly developed societies are distinguished not only by rapid transformation, but also by large-scale social and ethnic diversity and growing economic inequality. This also increasingly shapes adolescence and makes their life-world more complex.
Coping patterns of adolescents in dealing with developmental tasks are shaped by gender. Over the last three to four decades, girls and young women have in many areas of life and society attained better prospects than boys.

Sometimes, the pupils hatch plans that this twinkly-eyed prof, with a hint of schoolboy-mischief, cannot pass up. “They had an ingenious idea,” said Hurrelmann: The pupils in Eschweiler organised an in-class “Who’s Who?” quiz to match theories they’d studied with the scholars that had come up with them. When a Hurrelmann maxim was cited, they held up a mask with his face. With the final maxim, Hurrelmann himself strode into class: “I’m Klaus Hurrelmann, and I can tell you about that myself,” he declared to the delight of the class - and the astonishment of their teacher.

No question about it, this prof “gets” kids.

Clad in his customary black t-shirt and jacket, the youthful, fit, septuagenarian, with his reassuring manner and thoughtfully chosen words, musters both beatnik and elder statesman. A regular spokesman for and expert on young people in the German media, Hurrelmann comments on subjects ranging from political engagement to social media or retirement planning. And he spends a lot of time on the ground studying his subjects - interviewing young people for the quadrennial “Shell Youth Study”, or visiting schools and working with his students at the Hertie School.

Joining the faculty in 2009 after a distinguished career at the University of Bielefeld, where he founded the first German School of Public Health, Hurrelmann teaches health, education and welfare policy. He’s also frequently involved in mentoring student initiatives, such as the recent one with think tank Polis180 on youth participation in political parties and the now well-established Teach First programme, which enlists graduates to spend a couple of years teaching at socially problematic schools. Hurrelmann says he is often impressed with the level of commitment and initiative students bring to the school.

The Hertie School curriculum is “a compact programme with precise preparation and a heavy reading load,” which students tackle with enthusiasm, he says. The “American style” interaction between professor and students requires lots of feedback and consultation with students. That means spending considerably more time on courses than in the past, he admits, “But it’s also more satisfying.”

An authority on Gen Y

Besides studying the commonalities of adolescents from generation to generation, Hurrelmann also tries to understand what defines these groups individually – from baby boomers to Generation Z. He has a particular interest in those who have come of age during his career – Generation Y, about which he co- authored a book with Erik Albrecht, Die heimlichen Revolutionäre – Wie Generation Y unsere Welt verändert (The secret revolutionaries – How Generation Y is changing our world; Beltz, 2016).

“The kids almost always ask the same question: ‘Herr Hurrelmann, how did you get interested in this topic?’” Hurrelmann says. “Perhaps it’s because I had some trouble in my own youth and I wanted to explore why that happened.”

Every childhood has its traumas, some more dramatic than others – war, loss of a parent, or other events beyond a child’s control. These register with kids and shape who they are. In some cases, there is a concentration of events. Gen Y kids, born between 1986 and 2000 and sometimes known as “Millenials,” grew up in the shadow of 9-11 and the ensuing Great Recession.

“Gen Y carries traits that come from the insecurity of not being able to plan for the future. It’s not as bad as the post-war youth, but there are parallels.”

His trauma was the Second World War - he and his mother’s flight from their home, and the return of his father from a British prisoner of war camp several years later. The bright and bookish young Klaus was recommended for the university track school, Gymnasium, although he did not come from an academic family. Supported by his mother, but derided by his father, a sailor with little educatio, he felt out of place with schoolmates from more educated backgrounds. Feeling pressure to be “cool”, he fell in with the wrong crowd, was caught stealing, and got kicked out of school at the aged of twelve.

His past is still very much with him now, often referring to his childhood problems when speaking with kids today. “I tell them about this, and that’s valuable because they see I had problems too,” he said. “That puts us on a down-to-earth level, and they understand that my interest is a personal one.”  

Ultimately, Hurrelmann finished his Abitur. He went on to study sociology, psychology and education at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Münster, earning a doctorate in sociology. He founded the first German School of Public Health at the University of Bielefeld, where he was Director of the Research Center SFB 227, "Prevention and Intervention in Childhood and Adolescence".  

Hurrelmann co-authors the Shell Youth Study, a survey of 2,500 young Germans, published every four years. He is also is involved in youth studies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere – all aimed at helping policy-makers understand how to better support young people and create policies that will ensure a stable and secure future. It’s a broad agenda – encouraging young people to save for old age, integrating kids from migrant families into German society, examining the effects of digital media on socialisation, or getting young people to engage in politics. The last, Hurrelmann says, is particularly urgent.

“Kids want to be taken seriously and see that they have opportunities.”

Hands-on engagement is the key to making kids understand why politics is important, he says. Experiencing democracy at a young age – even in Kindergarten, say by letting kids see that their voice counts - can instil these values as they get older. In classes where kids were allowed to make the rules for inappropriate behaviour, young people have shown themselves to be even stricter than the adults, Hurrelmann says, chuckling. 

“Studies show that the young generation has a distance to the political system, democratic structures and parties. And that is a real risk for the further development of democracy,” Hurrelmann says. Today’s young have little interest in politics, are active only socially, in their personal sphere, he worries. “But there are early signs that Brexit and Trump could change this.” And perhaps Klaus Hurrelmann, too.

More about Klaus Hurrelmann

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