Franziska Schubert’s life first became chaotic on the day she decided to bring some order into it. She was 17 at the time, a year ago this summer, and she had come to the Eberswalde Career Information Center to talk about her future, namely about what to do with herself and her life after graduating from high school. Plenty of people had already given her advice – parents, friends, teachers. They had told her that the world was now at her feet, and that she should take advantage of economic growth, the lack of skilled professionals and fantastic educational options.
No generation before hers had been in better shape. That was what Ms. Schubert heard.
No generation before hers had been forced to choose among so many possibilities, without any guarantee of which of them could lead to success. That was what she thought.
“The career counselor wanted to know what my strengths and weaknesses are,” she said. “Then he told me about even more options. In the end, I said to myself: Okay, now I’m right where I started. I just have an extra 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of paper to carry around.”
“People come here and say: My problem is making a decision.”
There are more than 9,000 courses of study and about 350 recognized trades in Germany today. There are scholarships for semesters abroad and orientation semesters, and there are boot camps and exploratory traineeships with companies, consulting firms and law firms. The digital revolution has made almost everything in the world uncomplicated and convenient. You can even attend classes at Harvard University from your living room in Eberswalde, a town near Berlin. In addition, the generation graduating from schools and universities today will inherit more from their parents than any generation before it.
You’d almost think that being young has never been this comfortable and risk-free. And yet a generation of young people entering professional life hasn’t been as disheartened as the current generation in a long time. Studying abroad is out and getting married is in once again. The divorce rate is going down while mortgages are on the rise. Women look forward to taking time off after having children.
Today young women move out of their parents’ home at 22 on average, while young men stay until they’re 26 – a full four years later than 10 years ago. The Rheingold Institute, a market research company, is calling this the “Biedermaier Generation” referring to period in the 1800s that emphasized family life and private activities.
Today’s young people have seen the world slide into crisis and only painstakingly pull itself back out again. They have witnessed the constant stress of burned out parents that often destroys their relationships. They are reacting to their experiences by seeking to create a safe and sound environment for themselves. The management consulting firm EY recently found that a third of all university students want nothing more than to land a government job after graduation. Their main reason? Job security.
Psychologist Peter Schott has the warm and soft voice of a storyteller, capable of making his listeners forget about the stress and pressures of the outside world. And that’s been his job for the last 40 years, working at the student counseling office of the University of Münster, one of Germany’s largest universities. He is now the head of the office, and yet, says the 64-year-old, he hardly provides any counseling to students today, since all the information they need is online.
“People come here and say: My problem is making a decision,” Mr. Schott said.
What makes their decisions so difficult is that universities, hoping to boost their standings, have created more and more degree programs with more and more specializations. But public policy, which has drastically shortened the amount of time students spend in high school and expanded ways to secure a diploma, is also at fault.
Nowadays, the person politicians envision as the model student has graduated from high school at 17, after attending school for only 12 years (there were traditionally 13 grades in the university track of Germany’s education system), and then immediately enters a university and earns a bachelor’s degree after only three years. At this point, this model student is 20 or 21 – and is already expected to plunge headlong into the working world.
At this age, few students have spent much time abroad. According to a study by the German education ministry and the national student union, only 7 percent of students (5 percent of men and 10 percent of women) in bachelor’s degree programs spend a semester abroad today.
A handful of German universities now allow their students to study a broad range of subjects before they become specialized – a tradition at American colleges. Zeppelin University, a private institution on Lake Constance in southern Germany, offers scholarships for those who have dropped out of other degree programs or apprenticeships, and for anyone who decides to attend a university after turning 30.
“I see complete cluelessness and indecisiveness, because a lot of things are so exciting,” says Zeppelin’s vice-president, Tim Göbel.
While a small elite of 20 to 30-year-olds in Silicon Valley or Berlin’s Kreuzberg district aims to revolutionize the economy with the help of the Internet, the overwhelming majority of this generation is satisfied with success on a smaller scale. Young people know that “they can crash and burn at any time in this disjointed world,” says Stephan Grünewald, head of the Rheingold market research institute.
Every eight years, Mr. Grünewald and his colleagues take a particularly close look at young people. He was more than surprised the last time around. “They’ve become even more narrow-minded,” he concludes. Their main goal in life is to own a house with a garden, have children and a dog, and spend their entire lives with the same person.
Parents who coddle their children until they lose all ability to think independently are part of the problem. The aimless generation is partly a consequence of helicopter parents. Christiane Wempe, a psychotherapist with the University of Mannheim in southwestern Germany, has written a book on the subject.
“Parents often promote the boomerang kid phenomenon by failing to raise their children to be independent,” she wrote. The consequences are dramatic: “Once someone becomes a boomerang kid, he or she will be a little slower in all respects” – especially in getting his or her bearings in the working world.
Aimless young people are a completely new phenomenon for companies. For the first time, a generation is entering the labor market that expects more than decent pay. Today’s young professionals want companies to take them by the hand and offer them guidance, and yet they also want to work independently and be able to structure their time creatively. They want as much job security as possible, but they also want enough flexibility to spend time with their families.
As for Franziska Schubert, now that she has graduated from high school, her first decision was not to make any decisions. After all, she said, she also needs to take care of her horse. “You do feel a little antisocial when you don’t know what you’re going to do,” she said at the end of her career counseling session in Eberswalde. At least she knew what she was doing the next year: waitressing.
Translated by Christopher Sultan