Dec 17, 2021

Are Young Germans Allies for Progress in Foreign Policy?

A majority of Germans under 35 has voted for one of the parties now forming the new government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but they are far from thrilled with its policies. To include their views will be a crucial task.

A graph showing differening response, per age groups, to whether Germany should become more engaged in internaitonal crises
Attribution CC BY

Two days before the federal election in September, they were on Germany’s streets en masse: around 620,000 mainly young Germans, mobilized by the Fridays for Future movement, drawing attention to the need to achieve the 1.5-degreeclimate goal. In the view of the young protesters, none of the party platforms set sufficiently ambitious climate targets.

Three months on and a new government is in place. The coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) led by new Chancellor Olaf Scholz is promising an “Aufbruch”—a fresh start. But it’s not only Fridays for Future that isn’t thrilled; the youth organizations of the Greens and SPD are also far from euphoric.

The recent “Berlin Pulse” poll by Körber-Stiftung points to a rather skeptical view of Germany’s new government among younger Germans, also regarding foreign policy. Asked to evaluate Olaf Scholz’ capability to represent Germany’s interests in the world, 33 percent of respondents from the 18–34 age group expect him to do worse than his predecessor Angela Merkel. Among the over-65s, only 21 percent think so. Germany’s new chancellor will need to convince younger Germans in particular of his suitability for the job at hand.

While “Generation Z”¾and parts of “Generation Y”¾became highly politicized by the reluctance of older generations to tackle the climate crisis, their democratic participation in a traditional sense is rather limited, as is their access to power: only around 8 percent of eligible voters at Germany’s election were under 30. And even though there are now 10 times more parliamentarians under 30 in the Bundestag than in the last legislative period, they still account for only 6 percent of all members of parliament.

A Will to Listen

Scholz and his cabinet members must listen to the skepticism of young people, hear their concerns and expectations, and include their views. They should do so not only to satisfy their voters (six out of 10 first-time voters casted their ballot for one of the three coalition parties), but also as a way to safeguard the future of democracy. A study by the University of Cambridge conducted in 2020 shows that 55 percent of under 35s in 160 countries are not satisfied with democracy.

A poll by Körber-Stiftung adds to this daunting picture for Germany: While 90 percent of Germans aged 60 and older believe that democracies are better suited to dealing with international challenges such as pandemics, climate change, and digitalization, this view has less support among the under 35s (78 percent); 13 percent in this age group even consider non-democratic systems as better equipped for the job (only 5 percent of older Germans hold this view). Of course, the youngest part of the German population has mostly no active memory or experience of living in a non-democratic system.

So how should Germany’s new government deal with this?

Acknowledging that younger Germans look at the world differently than their parents and grandparents would be a good start. In contrast to older generations, the climate issue is the all-dominant theme for Germans under 35. They name it as the biggest challenge for German foreign policy and consider reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement as the priority for European policy coordination.

In contrast, older respondents are more worried about Afghanistan and migration; climate change ranks only third on their list of priorities. And while German foreign policy is shaped by the logic of alliances, young Germans do not divide the world so easily into allies and rivals. Considering themselves a generation of “global citizens” with forms of communication and pop culture that transcend borders easily, young Germans are generally in favor of international cooperation. As survey results by the Pew Research Center indicate, younger generations also tend to have a more favorable view of other countries.

One example for this is China, which young Germans perceive less negatively, and to a lesser degree as a threat to German values, than older age groups. In addition, the fact that one quarter of young Germans is unable to determine one particular country as “Germany’s most important partner” might be read as a sign of a lack of knowledge, but also seems reasonable given the fact that the dominant issue, climate change, will not be solved with allies alone but requires global cooperation¾including with Beijing. Germany’s new government should take this as an encouragement to experiment with agile formats of multilateralism, such as more flexible coalitions of the willing.

Recruiting “Allies for Progress”

Germany’s new government should also actively include young Germans by making them their “allies for progress.” The progress Germany’s new government envisions in its coalition agreement needs the support of a generation equipped with a different skillset for the digitalized world and fresh perspectives on old and new challenges. While young Germans are more skeptical with regards to the competitiveness of European innovation and digitalization compared to China and the United States than older ones, seven in 10 young Germans see digital transformation as an opportunity for democracy to flourish rather than as a threat to it.

When trying to assume “greater responsibility for Europe and the world,” as the foreign policy chapter in the coalition agreement is titled, new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock could benefit from the support of young Germans. In this age group, 65 percent think that their country must shoulder greater international responsibility (see graph above). Only 36 percent of respondents aged 50 and older share this view¾in a disagreement between young and old that has steadily widened over the past four years. 

To bridge this and other generational gaps and to “dare more progress,” as Scholz’ coalition has promised, requires courage and stamina. A different world view and skillset will be important resources for this task: Off to a fresh start!

Julia Ganter is Editor of "The Berlin Pulse".

Alisa Vogt is Program Director of the Young Leaders Programs at the International Affairs Department of Körber-Stiftung in Berlin.

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