Young people haven’t been this political for a long time

In their new book "Generation Greta", Klaus Hurrelmann and Erik Albrecht say traditional parties need to wake up.

It started with the climate movement, but this is only the beginning. Once politically sensitised, the members of the youngest generation, most of whom are now under 20 years old, will in future clearly and unambiguously articulate their interests at school, in vocational training, at work, in the media and in their leisure time. In doing so, they won’t shy away from radical demands for a rapid change in lifestyle. The engagement of young women is especially notable. 

These are the central findings of our analysis of Germany’s youngest generation - those born after the turn of the millennium. They are commonly referred to as "Generation Z", after previous generations were designated "X" (for enigmatic, uncertain) and "Y" (for why, questioning and probing). We are abandoning the alphabet because "Z" makes no symbolic significance. We call these post-millennials "Generation Greta", because the Swedish student and environmental activist Greta Thunberg, founder of the "Fridays for Future" climate activist movement, has had a formative influence on their attitudes and thinking, radically questioning previous habits and certainties.

In our book, we describe the thoughts and feelings of Generation Greta based on current youth studies and numerous conversations we have had with young people. The book is based on intensive scientific and journalistic research over several years. It is written for a broadly interested audience and aims to be an authentic portrait of the young generation. It does away with many prejudices and offers parents, educators, trainers and politicians the chance to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the youngest members of society without prejudice. 

Our forecast: Young people haven’t been this political in a long time. They loudly articulate their interest in social reform and criticise the older generations for stagnation and inertia. Yet conflict between the younger and older population groups is not a typical aspect of this relationship. Although Generation Greta is taking charge of the shaping of the future, it seeks to close ranks with the generation of its parents and grandparents. Together with them it wants to initiate urgently needed changes.

It has been a long time since a younger generation in Germany took to the streets for social reasons. The 1968 generation was the last that fought to open up society and for the rights of women, gays and lesbians. The baby boomers continued this commitment in their own way through environmental and women's movements. But generations X and Y, who are now between 20 and 50 years old, were not very politically active.

This has changed significantly with the youngest generation of students, most of whom are still under 20. The climate strikes of Fridays for Future (FFF) bring something new to the streets. The ‘68ers rallied against their parents to fight for new freedoms. Today's young generation wants - as climate activists Luisa Neubauer and Alexander Repenning put it - to "educate their parents to a conscious lifestyle". They are not interested in opening up new freedoms, but in restricting freedoms that are harmful to the environment. Consumption, energy consumption, transport - everywhere, our society has lived far too long beyond its means. Now it is time to act sustainably.

But as our analysis shows, young people do not speak with one voice. Rather, a very broad spectrum of political opinions with different values and objectives is typical for life and the future. Depending on their level of education and social background, young people think differently about immigration, home, Europe, social justice, education and training, and each has their own feelings about faith, partnership and sexual identity. The spectrum of opinions ranges from the cosmopolitan, ecologically oriented followers of Fridays for Future from bourgeois homes to performance motivated, but more affluent and leisure-oriented middle-classes, to socially disadvantaged and marginalized young people in precarious situations. 

The concept of “generation” easily ignores the enormous contradictions within a generation. The  climate crisis fight is clearly the topic with which the particularly committed segment of the young generation influences the political debate. This is where Greta Thunberg has left her indelible mark. But the Greta Generation also includes other groups. According to the latest Shell Youth Study (on which Klaus Hurrelmann is lead researcher), some groups are not immune to authoritarian and nationalist statements. It is true that more than half of the 15 to 25-year-olds think it is good that Germany has taken in many refugees. At the same time, 68 percent say that in Germany it is not possible to say anything bad about foreigners without being labelled a racist. A narrow majority also believes that the government keeps the truth from the population, and almost as many say that the state cares more about refugees than about Germans in need of help. 

The young generation is divided within itself. The better their social situations and the higher their educational qualifications, the more they tend to be cosmopolitanism and socially tolerant. Those who live in economically difficult situations and have a low level of education are more likely to find sympathy for national and authoritarian positions and are opposed to the influx of people from other cultures. 

Political interests depend heavily on the educational level. Politics is most important for pupils in upper secondary school and students. Among them, twice as many are interested in politics as in the rest of the generation. Those who leave school with the lowest level certificate – Hauptschule, in Germany, have the least interest.

 The Abitur – the university qualification – makes an enormous difference. Success at school makes high school graduates self-confident. In the upper school they have learned to argue on the basis of facts. Now they use their skills for their activism. They can also literally afford to put their energy into the fight against a phenomenon like climate change that only indirectly affects their own lives. With their school degrees, they don't need to worry about their future in the current economic climate. This opens their eyes to the existential question of the climate crisis. At the same time, they bring with them the social capital needed to make their voices heard. 

The situation is quite different for young people who have little schooling. Environmental issues are important to them too. But they are also concerned with other issues besides climate change. First and foremost are education, career and earning money. They can be far from certain of a suitable apprenticeship or job. At the same time, they are afraid of rising prices for housing, energy and food. 

What unites all groups of young people is the feeling that they cannot trust the politicians in power and their parties. The German government is expected to set a much-needed course for the future. Instead, according to the young generation, it is losing itself in the minutiae of daily government and has little perspective on the future. For this reason, the majority of young people are taking a critical distance from the two governing parties, the CDU and the SPD, and are increasingly turning to the opposition parties, especially parties with clear programmes such as The Greens or Alternative for Germany (AfD). This attitude is also gradually being adopted by the older sections of the population. 

If the CDU and SPD continue to ignore the issues and political style of the younger generation, they will, according to our analysis, lose more and more influence. Youth research is, after all, always futurology. Long before developments affect the whole of society, they can already be read in youth studies. This also applies to the upheavals in the party landscape, which can drive the CDU and SPD to the edge of their existence, even if they continue not to listen to the voice of the young generation.


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