In Germany and Elsewhere, Youth Perceptions Offer an Important Window on the Future
This generation is only a small part of the electorate—2.8 million out of slightly more than 60 million of the population eligible to vote, or less than 5 percent—but its views may now be significantly reflected in the next government.
The preliminary coalition talks over the last weeks have shown that a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” government of the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats appears highly unlikely. This is good news for Gen Z voters. No matter whether a “traffic light” coalition (Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats) or “Jamaica” coalition (Christian Democrats, Greens, Free Democrats) will govern Germany for the next four years, the two parties that align most with their preferences will most likely be represented.
The Free Democrats and The Greens will hold ministries, shape strategies, and chair committees in parliament—positions in which they will have a significant impact. The fact that the two parties talked first to each other before starting pre-negotiations with other parties underlines that they are well aware of their leverage in a coalition, and of the concessions they can ask for from either the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats. This could force other parties to commit, for example, to significantly improving digital infrastructure in Germany or to take bold steps to fight climate change, two issues high on the priorities list of young voters.
Those who previously considered “these young people” who skip school on Fridays to demonstrate for more action to tackle the climate crisis or trade stocks daily on their smartphones as a neglectable majority might now face a wake-up moment. Gen Z has made its way into German politics and, whether the older generations want it or not, it is time to listen to them.
A New Perception of Global Politics
Considering the weight of Gen Z in politics as a German particularity would be short-sighted. It might be a minority today but its political weight will increase over the next years. It is usually described as a strongly politicized generation. Having formed their worldviews after 9/11 and in times of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the omnipresence of the climate crisis, the members of Gen Z have perceptions of the world and foreign policy that differ from those that currently shape much policy.
This is revealed by the Transatlantic Trends 2021 foreign policy survey, which reveals the 18-24 years old cohort to be an outlier on many questions central to the transatlantic relationship. The contrast is especially stark when comparing it to the oldest cohort in each country included in the survey, as I set out in a new policy brief. Gen Z Europeans and North Americans are more likely than their older compatriots to perceive the world as bipolar or multipolar instead of seeing the United States as the uncontested leader in global affairs, and to hold more positive views of China. They also seem to be a global and European generation, perceiving the EU as an important player in the world and more likely to support the military engagement of European countries in the Middle East.
A Window to the Future
One could downplay the significance this generational gap, arguing that Gen Z respondents are still a minority in society and not yet in decision-making positions. Yet, doing so would miss the potential for positive change. Rather, policymakers should understand the perceptions of Gen Z as a starting point for reflections on a future world order with its challenges and opportunities, and the place of Europe and the transatlantic partnership within this order.
Among other things, this would mean finding a balanced and pragmatic approach for dealing with China in the internal order (Gen Z are neither “China hawks” nor uncritical “China cheerleaders”), for creating positive examples of transatlantic cooperation, and, for Europeans, not downplaying the potential role of Europe and consequently pursuing European strategic autonomy. The perceptions of young respondents expressed in Transatlantic Trends 2021 do not signal the death knell of the transatlantic relationship as we know it. Rather, it is a window to the future—and taking these seriously is a solid point of departure for setting the sails for European integration and transatlantic relations in a changing world and jointly designing this future.