Mr. Grünewald, it used to be said: “Anyone who is not a leftist at the age of 20 has no heart. Anyone who is still a leftist at the age of 40 has no mind.” Schmarrn? Or is there some truth to it?

That’s a saying from the 70s that no longer applies to the reality of young people’s lives today.

According to the new 2024 Youth Study, young people today tend to lean more to the right. 22 percent of 14- to 29-year-olds would even vote for the AfD – 13 percentage points more than two years ago. What’s going on with “Generation Z”?

Of course, such an increase can be observed. But you shouldn’t pretend that the entire “Generation Z” is leaning to the right. In our studies, we prefer to distinguish between different types of expectations. The committed optimist type is eager to transform and is committed to a better future; this type has declined sharply since last year. The other is the disappointed radical; their number has increased – as in society as a whole.

Stephan Grünewald, 63, is a qualified psychologist, therapist and co-founder of the Rheingold Institute in Cologne. More than 5,000 in-depth interviews are conducted there every year on current issues from the market, media and society. Grünewald’s book “Germany on the Couch” became his first bestseller. He is married and has four children.

How dangerous is this trend for a liberal society?

What we should be particularly concerned about in the youth study is how exhausted young people are. What a resigned attitude they display. The crises of the last few years – climate, corona and war – have partly turned their reality upside down. This circumstance affected her much more than us adults.

If you add the values ​​for the CDU, FDP and the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), the majority of “Generation Z” apparently feels safest in the right-wing conservative spectrum in this difficult situation. Why?

In the last election, the polarization among young people was between supporters of the Greens and those of the FDP. Both parties are now members of the traffic light, which has lost a lot of trust due to the constant bickering. And: Today’s youth generation is no longer rebelling against the establishment per se, as it was in the 1970s, which is no longer bourgeois-conservative but rather left-wing liberal. She no longer feels authoritarianly restricted by parents and teachers, but rather supports them in solidarity.

What is “Generation Z” afraid of the most?

Their basic fear, which develops in their childhood, results from the experience that families are breaking up and patchwork relationships are emerging everywhere in their circle of friends: single mothers, deserting fathers. This sword of Damocles overshadows her childhood and youth. It means that many young people feel the need to stabilize the family system instead of revolting. They try to keep the family business together with their small-scale social diplomacy.

So the world crises don’t play that big of a role?

Also. Just a few years ago, young people thought that with their smartphone the whole world was open to them. It seemed as if you could control or manage everything at the flick of a wrist or at the push of a button. Then the corona virus came and what you felt like omnipotence turned into a deep powerlessness because you were surrounded by an invisible enemy against whom there was no help. And then came the war in Ukraine, which further increased their fear of the collapse of supposedly stable conditions.

Who rules in Berlin is less important?

The constant bickering of the traffic light coalition also triggers fear among the young generation that the bonding system of the father state could also break down. The AfD then shamelessly serves the longing for a redemptive return to the supposed stability of earlier times, for clear blame and a carefree insouciance.

Young people, on the other hand, want to work less, have more free time, and have more time for friends.

They want to work less because they often see their parents constantly spinning the hamster wheel. They don’t want to get involved in this mindless hustle and bustle. At the same time, private life has become much more stressful for the boys. There are no longer clear role assignments for them. This diffusion requires constant new role negotiations in the relationships, which eats up an enormous amount of time and energy. Here too, the AfD promises a role backwards into old role patterns.

Only 18 percent of the boys surveyed are close to the Greens. With so little attention to environmental issues, can the necessary transformation towards climate neutrality even be achieved?

Young people are currently not in a mood of departure, but rather in an apocalyptic mood. Psychologically speaking, we are not in a turning point, but rather in an aftermath. We will try for a few more years to somehow stabilize the situation as it once was. This sometimes leads to a kind of early retirement attitude among young people. You go traveling or apply for your first sabbatical at the age of 20. But they urgently need another idea of ​​a better world, which unfortunately is nowhere on the horizon at the moment.

How does “Generation Z” get out of the depression?

There is no silver bullet. During the lockdown phases, many young people became nest-sitters and retreated into the fold of the family. Some people are still having a hard time finding their way out of it. Others have escapistically fled to the Internet to escape the loss of structure that the Corona period brought with it in order to find support in social networks or to distract themselves in states of media intoxication. Of course, they come into contact with the AfD much more quickly via Tiktok, because the right wing has very cleverly captured them there. Even beyond social networks, many young people are usually only active in their specific environment. This creates alienation and thus fear of strangers, which in turn can play into the AfD’s hands.

So is there no patent recipe for new confidence and joy in life?

I advocate a compulsory social year in which you leave your narrow circles and get together again with strangers from completely different backgrounds and make a difference together in meaningful projects. This makes people more tolerant and young people experience themselves as self-effective and thus ward off their fear of powerlessness. They also contribute to preventing the world from drifting further apart by talking to other people.