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04 March 2015

'Millennials' in Germany

Posted by: Benjamin Wilhelm, Former Member FEPS YAN

Categories: Politics, Policy, Germany, millennials

The empiric findings of the Millennial Dialogue report regarding Germany sheds light on distinctive separation between the private and the public realm in Germany. In this comment I want complement the survey data with some historical contexts regarding the said separation. I want to conclude this comment with a broader hypothesis of how the German view can be explained: I argue that this generation is coined by a pragmatic view on politics which is complemented by a broad knowledge of and interest in politics but also sidelined by the strong interest in individual development especially through education in contrast to a more social perspective. Policy proposals which want to find their support should hence take this attitude into account.[1]

The comment starts by looking at their societal context (demography/gender/migration), it moves on by highlighting their individual contexts (family life/education/job market) and it finishes by complementing these views through some snap shoots on their macro views regarding political and economic experiences. The comment concludes by suggesting a pragmatic view on policies which might be in the centre of this generation‘s concern and which might affect future German politics as well as the modes how to do so.

1. Societal context

Demography – Germans born after 1980 knew about the changing generational contract, ie. that their will be increasingly less people to secure the pensions through a redistribution mechanism which led to an increased responsibility to invest in private pension schemes. As children of the baby boomers (the generation of 1945 to 1970) the Millennials are in the situation to be confronted with a quite large cohort starting their retirement just now. People are therefore rather meant to rely on their own capacities to secure their well being for their pension age. A further outcome of this demographic asymmetry points to the Millennials’ democratic representations as they are rather a small fraction when it comes to electoral will formation even though – as the report shows – they are quite willing to vote.

Gender – The Millennial generation in turn is one of the first which actually live with an understanding of gender equality. Even though this does not mean that German society has already reached an adequate level of equality, children of Millennials‘ have parents who lived in patchwork families, where fathers might stay at home and where mothers are the main income providers. Millennials are confronted with policies which explicitly tackle traditional gender roles like same sex marriage, parental leave or gender quotas (see the figure on their believe in gender equality). Especially the daughters of the Millennials have or will have a higher probability to end up with a university entrance degree or a PhD than their sons. Education, as it has been shown in several figures also plays a central role in this new social reconfiguration.

Migration – Millennials in Germany are also represented by children or grandchildren of migrant labourers who came to Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. The efforts of this so called third generation (i.e. that they are born and grown up in Germany) challenged the traditional school system as it rather contributed to segmentation than integration. After reunification in 1990, Millennials from eastern Germany migrated to the western part in order to find jobs and apprenticeships in a rather unknown social environment. This constellation might have also contributed to the focus on developing his or her own carrier and family life in contrast to focus so much on their societal engagement as it has been found in the Millennials’ survey.

2. Individual context

Family life – Millennials’ family experiences differ in two respects from previous and following generations. On the one hand side and as children, they grew up in family context where they are mostly considered as planed children but they are also the first who lived in patchwork contexts not as stigmatised as it had been before. On the other hand and as parents themselves, Millennials are quite positive about having their own families and even planning to have rather more children than previous generations. They main difference in both aspects might be the relative position of fathers and mothers which millennials experienced throughout their own formation and how the experience or want to experience it with regard to their own children. A public spending focus on healthcare, education and the environment (the three top priorities for Germans Millennials according to the survey) seems to back the wish to have a promising and constructive few into their and their children’s future.

Education – Specifically in Germany Millennials might have been the last generation who experienced a functioning tripartite school system whereafter the lowest level (i.e. Hauptschule) lost much of its reputation as a good qualification for vocational education. In terms of higher education, Millennials are the first generation which experienced the European wide introduction of a new University system which changed the German university system and diplomas quite radical. This goes along with an increased mobility within Germany but also European wide or globally – them being the first ERASMUS generation fully experiencing free movement of persons in Europe and broadly able to speak english. As also the survey indicated quite clearly, the importance for German Millennials to qualify themselves as well as their children (see government priorities) might has been even fostered by these events.

Job market – The transition into the job market for German Millennials is just to be concluded. Much of their formation time was coined by increasing unemployment (after the .com bubble), especially for the eastern and northern regions. This tendency was only turned around after 2005 often associated with the reforms of the social security system (Hartz 4) which made the (baby boomers’) middle class feel unease about their economic outlook (maybe for the very first time in such a fundamental fashion). In contrast to this, most of the Millennials seem to have secured their careers and do rather focus on their families and private concerns than concentrating to much on their carriers or political engagement. This development might, on the one hand, address the low expectation regarding the public sector to create jobs (compared to Poland and Italy, figure 15) but also what kind of jobs they want to full fill (figure 20).

Macro views

Economics – The Millennials experienced two economic crises with a global dimension. This was on the one hand side what had culminated in the crash of the internet bubble in early 2000 (which rather affected the parents of the Millennials trusting the first time in capital markets, buying Telekom shares and loosing much of their origin investment) and on the other the recent financial crisis with its often implied analogy to the recession in the 1930s (which in Germany resonates with a fragile political system). Indeed both crisis did not immediately affect this generation, e.g trough loosing their jobs but especially the latter showed vividly how economic crises is able to disrupt political systems. As especially the latter crisis did affect this generation rather not in their immediate context might be one reason why effective crisis management associated mostly in the survey with the CDU is very much appreciated. This might have also fostered the quite surprising survey result of how the German Millennials think of the extent to which politicians deliver on their associated tasks particularly compared tot he other countries‘ Millennials.

Politics – German Millennials know more or less three chancellors from their own experience – Kohl, Schröder and Merkel. Each had or has a very specific attitude in leading the German political system. Whereas Kohl had a quite patriarchal understanding of power and whereas Schröder was very focused on his own capacities it might be the attitude of Merkel who best reflects the pragmatic (even apolitical) approach to politics which might be shared by a rather bigger part of the Millennials. This might also be very much in contrast to other European attitudes (see e.g. figure 6 and 7) but it might explain why the more general political sphere in Germany is not that much polarised than as it might seem in other countries.

A pragmatic view

“I do not think that is too much political change” – This statement regarding the future of Germany presented in the survey seems to be quite appropriate to combine the different parts above. German Millennials are interested in politics and how policies affect the future of their lives but they also feel quite confident of the resilient and functioning quality of their political system. Politics seem to be able (from their perspective) to manufacture the basic conditions for a stable or even better future to come.

From my perspective, German Millennials learned a lot by the experiences of others. They learned from the conflicts between and within their preceding and parental generation. They saw how a bad economic environment and unemployment affected older members of their families; they saw how war generated migration; they saw catastrophes like 9/11 and how it changed the security system of the world; they grew up within a globalising world and how it brought global inequality to light; they experienced the highest level of European integration as well as how the Eurocrisis unleashed in southern Europe. German millennials it seem know a lot by learning and maybe less through their own experience. This might be one more reason why they so strongly believe in pragmatics and the possibility to fix things when they had once been turned out badly before.

This pragmatic view on politics makes them in general less responsive to political ideology or matters of principle but they might be alerted when it comes to explanations of how to solve problems even if it might be a long or hard way to go. Hence a good political strategy might focus on content rather on form in order to get German Millennial‘s to vote for political ideas, i.e. to provide narratives with well thought solutions for concrete problems they experience in their lives or learn from the experience of others.


[1] The term Millennials is to name a generation close to the end of a millennium. This rather formal description shades to a certain extent the differences of their origin. Millennials in Germany compared to Millennials in the US for example (where the generation got its name being the largest generation ever experienced) are in several ways quite different. In this comment I cannot focus on their difference but I want to highlight a few numbers regarding generation of this period (i.e. born between 1980 and 2000) in Germany. Indeed for Germany the period to be studied might be different when looking at the fertility rate. It was around the year 1970 when it went down from 2.5 to 1,5 children per women with another step decline after reunification in 1990 to 1.3 and then after 1995 constant at 1.4 until today. (For comparison: Germany in 1970: 2.0; 1990: 1.45; and 2010: 1.39 as well as Poland in 1970: 2.26; 1990: 2.06; and 2010: 1.38 as well as Italy in 1970: 2.38; 1990: 1.33; and 2010: 1.41.). Looking at other social event the generational divide might like be placed around the year 1990 when a variety of changes influenced the socio-political context not only in Germany but all over Europe.