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Generational Responsibility in Germany
After the Void

The photo shows four young people sitting. Location: Riemer Park in Munich
Teenagers kill time in the Riemer Park in Munich on 28 April 2021. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / SvenSimon | FrankHoermann/SVEN SIMON

In a very personal contribution, 19-year-old student Luka Leonhard describes how the lockdown has affected her and her peers. What kind of social responsibility do under-20-year olds bear to protect older generations during the pandemic? How does she see the future?

By Luka Leonhard

It was my last week as student in thirteenth grad when, from one day to the next, Germany closed in March 2020 every school in the country. Not long after that, the nation’s shops, theatres, cinemas, cafés, airports and even borders were closed too. Their doors and gates were bolted shut, as were the doors of my mind, in which my dreams, ideas and a rough sense of where I was headed in future gave way to a gaping void. My life was put on hold indefinitely.

“It seemed like it would never be over, like we were trapped in our bedrooms forever without even any possibility of being together.”

Luka Leonhard

I remember feeling angry and sad because it felt like I was being deprived of things I was entitled to. Like getting a chance to say goodbye to my teachers and my school or to go abroad after high school. Instead of meeting new people, I made friends with new characters on TV series and the days blurred into entire months. The worst part, though, wasn't this debilitating state, but that so many promises of the freedom I would enjoy in my twenties had gone up in smoke. My friends and I had been waiting for so long to be free of obligations, to be able to do whatever we felt like doing, to fall in love, to lose and finally find ourselves. Now we were told we all had to take responsibility for our elders and practise social distancing in order to protect those most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The loss of perspectives and dreams

I remember the hopelessness that overcame my closest friends and me when last winter’s strict lockdown shut all the doors leading to promise and growth. It seemed like it would never be over, like we were trapped in our bedrooms forever without even any possibility of being together. More than a few of us succumbed to depression, anxiety disorders, anorexia and self-harm.

I remember how misunderstood I felt when one newspaper vilified “unreasonable teenagers", although most of us kids were actually following the rules. We were incensed at the older generation’s inability to put themselves in our shoes: most of them had secure lives and livelihoods and weren’t being robbed of all their dreams and future prospects by the lockdown.

Basic scepticism instead of light-heartedness

But I also remember the bond of shared suffering that united us despite the physical distance between us. Even in the freezing cold, we would meet up outside or make a date to hang out together in virtual chatrooms, so as to feel close. Most of us were down in the doldrums, but at least we shared this state of confinement. We complied with the restrictions, but when we just couldn't take it anymore, we would get ourselves tested and then meet up in small groups to enjoy at least being physically together with our best friends. It was often a matter of weighing up the risks to our physical versus our mental health. As there were no exemptions for birthdays either, we had to be creative. Some organised a paper chase. Another time we stood two metres from one another in the street under a window of a friend and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Despite the distance, we felt close to one another again at those moments.

What was missing was exuberance, and excitement about what lay ahead for us. Sadly enough, we haven’t fully recovered those feelings after the lockdown either. It's as though our basic confidence has given way to a basic scepticism. I no longer trust that everything will work out the way I imagine. We were stripped of our certainties, our confidence in the future, which was already shaky, since we’d grown up knowing our planet is nearing a dangerous tipping point. Everyone knows that, and yet it often seems my generation has to keep reminding adults that they need to take action.

There was a lot of talk about intergenerational solidarity during the pandemic. Especially at the start, young people were called upon to act responsibly and the vast majority did. But who’s assuming responsibility for our future, that of the young generation, some of whom aren’t even allowed to vote, for example for the Bundestag until they are eighteen years old?

“What the lockdown left behind is a dull sensation when thinking back on that spell of uncertainty – as well as a new certainty that things often turn out differently from the way we imagined.”

Luka Leonhard

When the climate catastrophe ceases to be a warning and becomes a reality in 2050, it will be too late for technological innovations, and future generations will be wholly at the mercy of the collapsing environment. Solidarity and responsibility should be mutual, and now, after all the sacrifices made by the generation under 20 over the past two years, I’d like to see the older generations show some solidarity in return by standing up for climate justice and ushering in the painful but necessary changes.

An uncertain future

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the widening rifts in our society. On the other hand, however, it has also shown how swiftly we can adapt and what radical measures our governments can implement when we fully appreciate the gravity of the situation and the threat to our very existence.

We have all come to feel how vulnerable our society is, and consequently how vital social cohesion is. We have all had to cope with unexpected changes, we’ve all had to spend time alone, and I am convinced most of us have ultimately come to realise that social contact remains a basic human need.

Schools and universities have now reopened, as have bars and exhibitions, and many people travelled around again last summer. Wearing face masks has become routine. What the lockdown left behind is a dull sensation when thinking back on that spell of uncertainty – as well as a new certainty that things often turn out differently from the way we imagined. I've learned to be flexible, to change my plan – or not even think too far ahead in the first place. And if I do, then in the hope that together we can cope with other crises – provided we have the courage to take them seriously and the firm determination to do whatever it takes to overcome them.