Surprising Survey Lost Youth

A new survey has found surprising similarities in the attitudes of young and old people in Germany. The generational divide has given way to other, more disturbing divisions in German society.
Redefining what old and young mean.


Germany has lost its youth, if the findings of a new survey are to be believed. More than 3,000 Germans of all ages were asked more than 100 questions to find out their attitudes on work, love, generational identity, what they value, what future they expect and what legacy they want to pass on to future generations.

The so-called Legacy Study was conducted by the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, the Berlin Social Science Center and the Institute for Applied Social Sciences, and it has demolished previous notions of what it means to be young or old in Germany.

Between the questions and columns of figures, the young people have gone. The responses show that young people have become more cautious and more reasonable than expected. And their parents and grandparents are more liberal, flexible and youthful than was thought.

In fact, young Germans today are no longer distinguishable from retirees or baby boomers. Not regarding sex, where older persons are just as relaxed. Or regarding drugs and alcohol, rejected by young and old alike.

Life phases used to be clearly distinguishable. Young persons tried things out, went on paths that sometimes led to their goal and sometimes led them astray, unlike adults, who observed these undertakings and openness to change with skepticism.

Young people have become more cautious and more reasonable than expected. And their parents and grandparents are more liberal, flexible and youthful than was thought.

The Legacy Study examined these notions with questions like: Is it important for people to begin something new? The expectation was that young people don’t have anything to lose and are more willing to leave everything behind. But the survey revealed a surprising similarity in attitudes between young and old. Of those polled, 70 percent of older people said it was important for coming generations to begin something new. And 64 percent of those between 18 and 35 shared that opinion. No significant difference.

The generations shared similar opinions on other questions: For example, whether they are or have been ashamed of their sexuality. “What makes older persons tick is the same as what makes young people tick,” said Jutta Allmendinger, president of the Berlin Social Science Center.

Granted, young people live differently, especially regarding modern technology. They use smartphones and the Internet with far more ease and familiarity. But all age groups think it is important to understand this technology.

The Legacy Study found many of the same attitudes and qualities in all generations — for example in the desire for more flexible working times. One question was: Would you recommend that everyone in the future have jobs with fixed working times? Of those over 66 years old, 62 percent answered yes. For those aged 18 to 35, 58 percent answered in the affirmative.

What makes older persons tick is the same as what makes young people tick. Jutta Allmendinger, President of the Berlin Social Science Center

For young people, there is nothing more important than work: 88 percent recommend that future generations share this attitude. In comparison, only 72 percent think it's important to have children. And young people don’t share domestic chores any more frequently than other generations.

It begs the question: what is the basis for a society without generations? And what happens to a country where the young think like the old?

Age, the survey found, is a far less important determinant of people’s attitudes than their education, income and circle of friends.

The more education a person has, the less important fixed working hours are to them. Only 42 percent of college graduates value them. The figure is 70 percent for people with no higher education.

Income influences world views just as significantly — for example on whether it is important to be informed about politics and culture. Among poor households, 55 percent responded affirmatively; of prosperous ones, 76 percent did.

And there is more willingness to try out new things among those whose circle of friends includes various ages, nationalities, incomes and sexual orientations.

The pattern extends through the questions. The divide is not between young and old, but between social classes. They divide young people. They destroy young people.

“Be outraged!” older generations have urged younger people again and again in past years. They didn’t listen because they’re not particularly interested in politics. But a country whose young people don’t care about politics loses its future. Youth is about more than rebellion; it’s about renewal too.

The cracks in society begin in school and are exacerbated by gentrification and widing income gaps. When there’s no contact, there’s no understanding and society begins to crumble.

People share similar values but evaluate their everyday lives differently, according to the findings. One example is the question of whether one should be informed about politics and culture. Here the poor and the rich converge in their recommendation for future generations.

“An amazingly large number of people said quite openly that they themselves don’t live in the way they would recommend to coming generations,” said Patricia Wratil, who handled the survey for the Berlin Social Science Center. “Many simply can’t afford a ‘good life’—organic food, for example, because that's too expensive.”

What effect does it have on people to always remain behind their own expectations? What does it do to a society when its population lives in different worlds? What happens to a country whose young people think like the elderly?

Two areas that found widespread approval in the Legacy Study were a need for belonging, for a “we culture.” Whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated – all support some type of solidarity. But they interpret it in different ways.

“We’ll manage it,” Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfastly proclaiming in the refugee crisis, trying to convey confidence that the country can handle the influx of more than 1 million asylum-seekers since the start of last year.

“We are the people,” chant the far-right anti-immigrant Pegida protesters in their weekly demonstrations.

Perhaps the time has come in Germany for “we” to mean everyone.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]