Economy and Social Matters in Germany – Panorama

The Plight of Young Germans

Coverausschnitt aus dem Buch Echtleben; © EichbornCovers of the books Echtleben and Wir haben keine Angst ; © Eichborn and S. FischerWhat is wrong with young adults today? They are insecure, afraid to commit, they go to therapists and suffer from burn-out syndrome – this is what Nina Pauer (29), a journalist at the German weekly, “Zeit”, wrote. The publicist, Katja Kullmann (42), went on to say that never before had young people in this our “Me, Me, Me” society felt so isolated and left to their own devices. Two women, each with their very own special angle on the present – the one writes about feelings, the other about money.

There has been a forced erosion of the solidarity people used to feel due to the working world disintegrating into a jumble of temporary work, subcontracted labour and part-time jobs. Her book is entitled Echtleben oder warum es heute so kompliziert ist, eine Haltung zu haben which can be roughly translated as “Living a real life or why it is so complicated these days to take a stance.” Nina Pauer on the other hand calls her taking of stock, Wir haben ‘keine’ Angst. Gruppentherapie einer Generation meaning “We are 'not' afraid. Group therapy of a generation.

Nina Pauer makes one thing clear right from the start - contrary to the title of her book - she is not dealing with a “generation”, but more with quite privileged young people from professional households who have mostly studied the humanities - the “up-and-coming middle class” (as Pauer calls it). Her two main characters– Anna und Bastian – represent two different stances. Those who give their all till they burn out. And those who somehow muddle through, not getting involved in any competitive activity and who are not willing to take risks. From a very early age their liberally minded parents taught them one thing – “everything is possible”. This is both a curse and a blessing at the same time, because it means nothing more than - it is all up to you, you have to take responsibility for everything yourself, and if you fluff it due to all the fantastic opportunities around, then you alone are the one who is the loser.

From the viewpoint of people over forty, the other writer, Katja Kullmann, poses the question whether this promise of “everything being possible” was in fact ever a real option, “Our society is in fact not half as open as people maintain, resources are still being bequeathed as they always have been.” Ms. Kullmann has already been through quite a lot in life, she was a best-selling author and was also forced to go on unemployment benefit (known as Hartz-IV in Germany); she was a departmental editor on a women's magazine and a free-lancer who had to live with the pressure of knowing that there is always someone who will do it cheaper. Her experiences have brought her to the conclusion that young people today are living in a “two-tier Bohème”. There are people who are “forced to take on marginal employment” if they want to make it. Then there are others who cannot make up their minds what course of study they want their parents to pay for or those who set up a software company with the money they have inherited. Both of these groups - according to Kullmann - perceive “what we call freedom” in quite different ways.

“Disturbed stress heads”

Nina Pauer; Foto: Dennis WilliamsonThe young people Nina Pauer is talking about react to this great feeling of insecurity by taking a distant approach to themselves. Her Anna, who is on the brink of a burn-out in her advertising agency, spends all her time, day and night, grooming her image for the outside world. She plays her role in a spooky self-realisation show which the author describes like a “Next Top Model” casting show á la Heidi Klum. “Anna, we have told you every week that you should not look so frightened,” warns the imaginary Heidi Klum. “At the moment it is only us that can see it, but in the long term the customer is going to see it, too.”

For Pauer it is irony that this generation uses to avoid committing itself. Anybody who comments on the start of his or her professional career with the words "Now I am one of those Apple victims", wants to show how aloof, how cool they are and how the whole thing is just not that important. It might even be the case that he or she goes for something completely different. Pauer describes the effects an attitude like this can have on the working world, love and friendship, on people's relationship to politics. "We are not against the system,” she writes, “but not exactly for it, either. It is all happening so far away from us ...” Anna even deals with her therapist in an ironic way, “We really must wear them down, mustn't we? We, the disturbed stress heads with our luxury problems.”

No time for Utopias

Katja Kullmann; Foto: Patrick OhligschlägerNina Pauer's protagonists are much too obsessed with themselves to get involved in fighting for any causes or ideas. Although she does confess that her book was written before the Occupy Movement came onto the scene. According to her colleague, Katja Kullmann, many of the young people aged between 20 and 30 have “totally internalised their so-called pragmatism. There is a huge urge to function well, to get through life successfully - hardly any room at all for Utopias or any really new visions.” Her advice to the young and creative would be, “If you want to somehow make the grade, then forget your ideals and take on as much work or as many orders as you can. If however you would prefer to prosper and succeed as a human being, then look after yourself and remain credible unto yourself.”

Maintaining credibility – that could actually be the motto of Bastian, the male protagonist in Pauer's book. Bastian is 32, leads a cool, laid-back kind of life, avoids any form of control, never stays anywhere for very long and despises “those cloned chicks” or “those stress heads”. Why is he doing therapy then? He has problems concentrating, is his answer. As soon as he starts trying to get to grips with something, everybody else has already done it better. “Nothing has any effect on me. I simply wait till at some point something might happen. Maybe one day someone will come along and tell me what to do.”

A new grass-roots movement?

“It is a pretty bad scene we're into,” they say themselves, these young adults with their focus on their "inner selves", on psychotherapy, on “delving into their own childhood” (Kullmann). Nina Pauer entitled the last chapter “We are not alone”. She says, “We have to get into networking, we have to let off steam and start talking to each other. When I hold my readings, I feel that it helps when people realise that they are not alone in feeling like Anna or Bastian. We have to set up networks.” This is also the conclusion drawn by Katja Kullmann. For the counter-movement has already begun, “Alongside this structurally enforced isolation people are looking at the same time for new ways of connecting with others, be it in the form of action groups, peaceful squatting, voluntary work, in what we call grass-roots movements. Community is being eroded from the ‘top-down’, but now new things are starting to develop from the ‘bottom-up’. I find this very exciting.”

Volker Thomas
is a freelance journalist based in Berlin and runs an agency for texts and design (www.thomas-ppr.de).

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2012

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