Values & Preferences of the New Political Generation: Reflections on the Center-Left

Arguing that Millennials are politically far different from their parents, Pia Bungarten of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Washington, DC Office provides her perspective on the recent German elections and, in addition to a broad analysis of Millennials’ impact, focuses on the center-left. This speech was presented at the recent event “Values, Challenges, and Opportunities for a New Political Generation,” and the views presented within are solely the author’s.


Sources show:

  • The new political generation in Germany is politically not as visible or as ambitious as the parents’ generation was (and is).
  • But, this does not mean that young people are a-political or that their political views will not influence the course of events.

To understand the findings, I think the following things need to be borne in mind:

  1. In the context of the 2008 financial melt-down and the recessions and debt crises that have followed, young people now confront a lot of economic uncertainty.
  2. Unlike their parents, who were part of the baby boom generation in Germany, they deal with a paradoxical situation that there are at the same time both “fewer of them” and “more of them.” On the one hand, Germany’s demographic situation with fewer children born and a rapidly aging population means the bargaining power of younger people is going up—all institutions in Germany are well advised to listen to the needs of young people if they wish to hire promising young people.
  3. Yet they also face much more competition. University reforms in the context of the so-called Bologna Process have created a more unified European context for university education. This has aided the students’ mobility. But it has also driven home that young Europeans are subject to global competition. Young people face pressures their parents did not face, and worry about the risk of losing out in the increasingly global context.
  4. Politics has changed too. Political life is no longer focused on just one’s own country—“Europe” as a part of globalization has a profound impact on the nature of the public sphere and political debate. Political life has become even more complex and multi-layered, many correlations are inscrutable, there are no easy fixes, the whole field of politics is confusing. Such conditions make it much harder to get involved
  5. One thing remains depressingly true of Germany: success in school remains clearly linked to social class, and it is just as clearly linked to access to higher education and better job opportunities and more income, and it is also clearly linked to the level of political participation. Those who suffer from the effects of the deepening social divide, are least likely to become politically involved.

What values and issues are most important to young voters in Germany?


  • Overall: Surveys seem to indicate that overall, young people fit in to society. They tend to affirm the core values and structures of the society around them (over 60 percent affirm that binding moral rules are needed if a society is to function, Schell Studie). Alternative currents have lost out, they are less attractive
  • Young people affirm the values of hard work and accomplishments. They see a person’s performance and achievements and the search for opportunities as key.
  • Researchers thus label them a “pragmatic generation,” and emphasize their tactical willingness to be flexible.
  • BUT: Emphasis on working hard and achievement is balanced by other priorities:
    • Young people put a premium on fairness, willingness to be mutually supportive => they don’t go for cut-throat competition.
    • And while ambition and the willingness to work hard for a career are prized, this should not keep you from having fun in life. Here they clearly diverge from the mainstream opinion that prizes performance and achievement above enjoying life
    • Social ties are key: Furthermore: there is a strong emphasis on the importance of social ties in one’s immediate context, i.e., family and friends.
    • Actually, one could even say: The private outranks the public. The Schell Youth Study found in 2010 that the high value placed on family noted in earlier studies had gone up further—more than three-fourths of the young people interviewed (76%) said that you need a family to really live a happy life. The 2012 Sinus Study found: in a time of unpredictability, young people search for support, for reassurances, they want to have a sense of belonging. Hence traditional values like security, doing one’s duty, family, and friendship are held high—they come across as mini-adults.
    • Political engagement is seen as less important than family, children, one’s partner, and work.
  • Along with family: people also value their region of origin. While young people now move with greater ease in Europe and the world, the idea of being a global citizen resonates less, they want to feel at home in a specific region—they anchor themselves in a particular place.
  • Left/right (BMBF):
    • Locating oneself on the left to right spectrum has experienced somewhat of a comeback (Schell Studie), but this does not mean a return to an ideological competition, which is not happening in the wider society either in the times of grand coalitions when what was right and what was left blend into each other.
    • Ministry of Education and Research found:
      • overall, the center has been strengthened, there are fewer extreme positions/opinions held;
      • yet the majority of students self-identify as green-alternative and social democratic, more left of center issues meet with more approval than right of center issues.
    • The Shell Studie 2010: 9 percent self-identify as left, 29 percent as “rather left,” 29 percent as center, 15 percent as “rather right of center,” and 3 percent as right wing. Politically interested young people with better education tend to self-identify as left of center; those with less interest in and lower educational levels tend to describe themselves as right.
  • Embrace democracy: prior to the federal elections, polls revealed that 82 percent are very or mostly satisfied with German democracy, only 11 percent are not satisfied.


  • Across the political spectrum people see as important: equality for men and women, promoting technological development, environmental protection, being tough on crime, push for further integration of Europe
  • Young people are aware of social imbalances and problems.
    • Issues of social justice resonate: minimum wage, fair wages. Social divides are seen as unjust by students.
    • Shell Study found that 70 percent believe that a lot is wrong in society and at the work place, and that it is necessary to take a stance against it. But this is often coupled with a sense of powerlessness—31 percent said that one could not do much against those in power. The higher the educational level, the more likely people talk about the need to resist.
    • Young people (interview with FES Intern Martin Meyer) regard as important: Maintain the welfare state—and see the tension between welfare state and debt level. Another issue that resonates (Martin Meyer) is generational justice: People are aware of government debt and many young people have a hard time understanding election time promises and gifts to the older generation, which put a burden on the young—generational justice is an issue.
  • Education is key:
    • As we know since the PISA studies of the early 2000s, in no other country covered by the study is success in school linked as clearly to the social origin of children. Young people are very aware of it. They see education as key to their future, and those who do not do well, see their chances much more negatively than others, their optimism and satisfaction with life has declined. Pollsters register that the social divide between different social classes has deepened in recent years.
  • Educational experience has changed:
    • Universities are less exclusive; more people study now, but have also become more essential for landing a decent job.
    • The emphasis is now on getting the needed qualifications for entering the job market, applicability is key, employability—in other words, the internship becomes almost more important than one’s studies.
    • The search for and necessity of gaining work experience means that the university is not as much at the center of the lives of students as it used to be (BMBF Studie).
    • Time pressures don’t leave time for something like a liberal arts education, for political and cultural activities.

Is the new generation as activist as their parents’ generation in the 1960s and 1970s?

  • Not really, but that is not all there is to be said.
  • Tricky question in Germany, as parents of young people in the East could not participate in the GDR.
  • All studies confirm that the younger generation is less interested in politics than their parents’ generation in the 1960s and 1970s.
    • BMBF: percent of students with strong political interest went from 54 percent in 1983 to 37 percent by 2007. Shell Studie found, however, that the percentage of politically interested went from 30 percent in 2002 to 35 percent in 2006 to 37 percent in 2010.
    • Sinus Studie: Young people are not passionate when it comes to traditional forms of political involvement; normal politics and politicians bore them
    • But: young people do have a political agenda, they respond to injustices, they want to be active, they look for those who articulate their problems and hopes in their language
  • Young people prefer time-limited, project-related action (FES, 2011)
    • Already in the 1960s, researchers found that students, due to the transitional nature of the life phase they were in, tended to keep a distance to formal organizations and preferred movements and shorter lived actions. To this day, one is more likely to find students in citizen initiatives/civic action groups than in political parties. They continue to prefer more informal forms of participation.
    • Yet in such less formal formats, levels of participation have dropped. (BMBF): in the 1990s, 60 percent of people interviews said that they were not active in a civic action group and could not imagine ever becoming active, by 2004 this has gone up to 72 percent. In other possible areas of engagement, from environment to women’s groups to trade unions, one also observed a decline in participation. With political parties, the number of students keeping a clear distance went from 74 percent in 1995 to 79 percent in 2004. Students active were active in environmental groups (14%, down from 21%), civic groups (12%), human rights groups (7%, down from 9%), and then political parties (6%).
  • Do they vote? One key way of telling political stance is: are they aware of their responsibility to vote and do they act on it. Studies show an increasing social acceptance of non-voting. Seventy-six percent of the under 30 year-olds (Bertelsmann) said that their friends would understand if they did not vote.
  • Voter turn-out has declined for German society as a whole. Since young people are currently very much in synch with society as large, it is not surprising that their views reflect broader trends.
  • Researchers attribute the decline in voter participation to the disproportionate decline in voter participation from the lower stratum of society. We have a socially divided democracy, and this social division is even more pronounced in alternative forms of political participation. All forms of direct democracy are socially much more selective than voting. The higher the educational level, the higher the chances of active voting behavior, and the lower the chances of participation in elections, the lower also the chances of participation in other forms for political life. Especially young people from precarious families are aware of injustices, but they also describe themselves as particularly non-political.
  • Young people are pragmatic, not non-political: The focus is more on the present and the doable.
    • They have participated in demonstrations against globalization and the Iraq War; they have gotten involved in issues like fair trade; they express critique in rap songs. Sociologists say that young people have a high awareness of problems and a readiness to engage (Ammerer, Osterreich, 2008).
    • Committed to democracy: lack of interest in party politics also is not to be confused with or misunderstood as lack of interest in and commitment to democracy. Polls reveal a strong consent and approval of democracy.
    • Interesting that political interest is stronger among young men than among young women.
    • Political topics that are of immediate relevance to young people and that fit into their experience of a globalizing, networked world, do get attention. They can envision political participation if the issue is important to them: (Schell Studie 2010) 77 percent would participate in collection of signatures; 54 percent would participate in boycotting products for political, environmental, or ethical reasons; 44 percent could see themselves in a political protest meeting; 39 percent could see themselves in a civic action group; only 17 percent could see themselves in a political party.
    • Willingness to participate (Sinus Studie): 8 percent had no willingness to participate in political activities; 15 percent had very little but 37 percent had a general willingness, 22 percent a higher willingness, and 18 percent a high willingness to participate.
  • Linkage to social class and educational level to political participation:
    • of those with high school diploma, 43 percent could envision political activity, of those with Hauptschule only 31 percent;
    • those from upper class: 50 percent, those from lower stratum: only 22 percent could envision getting engaged in pol activity.

Do young Europeans think European?

  • The search for sources did not lead to a separate study of young people’s attitudes toward Europe, but as the distance between what young people think and the prevailing attitudes in the general populations are not so wide, we can assume that young people’s attitudes are likely to reflect the attitudes of the general populations.
  • General public attitudes in Germany:
    • A PEW Global Attitudes Project revealed in May of 2013 that support for European economic integration was down in 5 of the 8 countries surveyed, including Germany. Positive views of the EU are at or near an all-time low point in many EU member countries, even among the young, as the Pew researches added. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median 60 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2013.
    • But: this is somewhat less so in Germany. In Germany, the PEW Research found, at least half the public still backs giving more power to Brussels to deal with the current crisis.
    • Prolonged economic crisis creates centrifugal forces that are pulling EU public opinion apart, separate French from Germans and Germans from everyone else. Southern EU is becoming more estranged as evidence by frustration with Brussels, Berlin, and the perceived unfairness of economic system.
    • Glum mood could turn around if the economy picks up, but rapid turn-around remains elusive. Also: Despite disillusionment with EU project, the euro remains in public favor (used in 17 of 28 EU members). More than 60 percent want to keep the euro as their currency (Greece 69%, England 67%, Germany 66%, Italy 64%, and France 63%.
    • Survey contradicts often-repeated narratives about Germany: paranoid about inflation, debt-obsessed. To the contrary, Germans are among those least likely to worry that inflation is very big problem, and most likely among the richer EU nations to be willing to provide financial assistance to EU countries with major financial problems. While Germans are worried about public debt, they are more concerned about inequality and equally concerned about unemployment.
  • Young people:
    • Official surveys in past years have always shown that “completing EU integration” is up there as a shared issue of young people, together with issues like “equality of men and women,” “maintain the welfare state,” and “environmental protection.”
    • But, as a young German I discussed this with, here too: educational background is key. He told me: yes, among my friends. The awareness of Europe has increased. Key elements are exchange programs like Erasmus and scholarships. [So] it depends on the educational background. People with less education have less chance to get in contact and get to know countries outside the context of vacations. But efforts should not just be focused on students; practical training programs should be more involved.
  • There are many ambiguities and contradictions at work:
    • one should not assume that young Europeans think European. “We lack a shared media and shared symbols for a shared identity” (Martin Meyer). “There are some first efforts, like the flag, and the Europe Day and the hymn, but this is not sufficient.”
    • The euro and the crisis drive home insights into European integration and that one should think European, but they are not ideally suited to develop a positive connection with Europe.
    • As stated earlier, the Bologna Process has created a more unified European context for university education and has aided the students’ mobility. But it has also driven home that Europeans need to respond to and are subject to global competition, and it thus increases pressures on students who worry about the risk of losing out in this global competition. As a result, there is ambivalence—people both welcome and are worried about the way in which globalization affects their prospects.

Which political actors are shaping the debate?

  • There are some younger politicians, but they are not shaping the debate.
  • More recently, prominent younger politicians have failed—Philip Rösler of the FDP and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of the CSU.
  • Observers cannot point to influential younger politicians, neither at the state, not at the federal level—Social Democrats think of someone like Carsten Schneider, and Christian Democrats might point to Philip Missfelder—they are important (Carsten Schneider in the Budget Committee), but they do not really shape the public debate. Sometimes, popular young stars— – be it soccer players or pop singers—fill this space, temporarily.
  • Young people of course use the Internet for political communication, too, but this does not mean that political interests increase. It does, however, lower the barrier for articulating political points of view.
  • The Internet also has the capacity to aid mobilization efforts—and perhaps most so regarding the politics of the Internet itself. This was visible when the Pirate Party burst onto the scene. It attracted mainly young urban men and showed the potential for bundling interests and a willingness to get engaged.
  • It also showed: engagement is more likely on behalf of new issues, not well established issues—even climate change—that have already been taken up by others and are in fact occupied by others.
  • The actual influence of internet-related political issues was, however, very low in the last elections: the Pirate Party did not make it above the 5 percent threshold. Observers conclude:
    • Don’t assume a fast mobilization or democratization with the help of the Internet.
    • Social networks still played a marginal role in the German campaign for disseminating information—it was a nice little extra, more a playground—on the day after the election the most searched-for terms were “soccer cup,” the late Jazz musician Paul Kuhn, and Microsoft’s hybrid Surface 2 tablet.

Pia Bungarten, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Washington Office

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.