How endangered our values ​​are fear

UZH News

Many young people today, inspired by the 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, deal with questions of climate protection or nutrition. Why did the girl, who was also invited to this year's WEF, manage to attract so much attention?

Monika Wilhelm: The values ​​that Greta Thunberg is aiming for are not new: the topic of sustainability was already mobilized in the 1970s and 1980s. What is remarkable in this case is that one young person succeeded in relaunching the debate. Having a peer speak to peers seems to be more effective than having teachers or politicians calling for them.

Martin Kindschi: Greta Thunberg grew up in Northern Europe in an environment that is strongly influenced by values ​​such as equality, justice and autonomy. A culture that opens up many possibilities and chances for the future for young people. Thunberg has now noticed that climate change could limit this open future. That is why she has become politically active and wants to change something - for example by calling for school strikes. Her success is due to the fact that she was able to address other young people directly who are in the same situation as her.

The Greta effect has become a global phenomenon that has reached young people in Switzerland, but also in Australia. Why do students in Australia identify with a girl from Northern Europe?

Child ski:The values ​​of autonomy and equality are widespread in all of these countries and enjoy a high priority. That is why Greta Thunberg's initiatives are also relevant to them.

Which values ​​are being negotiated? You are talking about autonomy and equality, Mr Kindschi, you are talking about sustainability and environmental protection, Ms. Wilhelm.

Wilhelm:In the 1970s, the US political scientist Ronald Inglehart put forward a thesis on changing values. He emphasized that people have a primary need for physical care and security. If this is satisfied, the need for beauty, self-expression, culture grows. The generation that grew up during World War II had primarily primary needs. Materialistic values ​​were central to them. In the post-war generation, these basic needs were covered. Accordingly, values ​​such as self-actualization became important for them. This means that our values ​​are also context-dependent. Empirical studies now show that the value system changed at the beginning of the 2000s. Many people are a little insecure. It is less clear whether their future looks bright. The topic of climate change plays an important role here - alongside other issues such as equality and autonomy.

What are the consequences of this new uncertainty?

Wilhelm: The needs for security and self-actualization begin to mix. Young people orientate themselves towards post-materialistic values ​​like autonomy. At the same time, they are worried about their future. For this reason, the topic of sustainability becomes important. That's why I don't find it so strange when the pursuit of autonomy and sustainability are mentioned in the same breath. On the one hand, it is about securing physical needs, about survival on this planet; on the other hand about your own expression and self-realization. These topics have become intertwined in this generation. This entanglement is a consequence of the new uncertainty.

Child ski: In this context, research also speaks of self-transcendence. People are becoming aware that resources are limited and that you have to live more sustainably and not just strive to meet your own needs in the short term.

What do you mean by self-transcendence?

Child ski: This includes many different values ​​- such as helping other people, but also standing up for nature and for society as a whole. These are values ​​that go beyond the self.

Why is the youth being politicized right now?

Child ski: Greta Thunberg probably reacted to a feeling of powerlessness. One could say: States are playing a game about resources and the climate. Everyone tries to pass the responsibility on to the others, and little concrete happens.

Has this powerlessness made young people politicized?

Wilhelm:I wouldn't say youth is being politicized right now because that implies that it wasn't before. Young people are not politically active for the first time today, nor is the first ecological movement forming. Many young people go through a phase on their way to adulthood in which they are strongly committed to the common good. For me these were demonstrations after “9/11” against the Iraq war. At that time the whole school took to the streets and demonstrated.

Political engagement is also a youth phenomenon?

Wilhelm:If we want to interpret current events, we cannot avoid the protesters. In this respect, they are a youth phenomenon, but not only. They are also a media phenomenon. Today, youth movements can grow very quickly with the help of social media. They quickly become visible and reach many people. Ten years from now, it remains to be seen whether this will develop into something permanent.

The protests are about values. What do you understand by values ​​and what role do they play in our lives?

Wilhelm: What values ​​are is a controversial topic in science. However, there is consensus on the role of values, namely that they can provide orientation. They can satisfy needs - lust or recognition. Values ​​indicate a direction and a goal and they are connected with meaning. Within my network of values, my value system, I can shape my actions, my life, in such a way that it makes sense to me.

How do young people come up with their value system? 

Child ski: Parents are certainly the most influential in younger years. The children are guided by their values. In science it was discussed who is ultimately more influential: the parents or the friends of the same age, the peers. The idea that these two factors are situationally relevant has prevailed. This means that if the parents value how the children spend their money or which friends they go out with, they continue to be of great relevance in communicating values. If this is less the case, the young people look for other role models - people who behave in a way that they consider desirable.

This means that children and young people acquire values ​​on their own initiative. How would you describe that?

Child ski:This often happens according to the trial and error principle. This means that certain behaviors are also tried out from time to time. On the one hand, these behaviors can come from one's own inspiration. On the other hand, children and adolescents observe the behavior of their peers. In their search for their ideal self-image, they associate certain behaviors of their peers with other characteristics such as success or satisfaction.

When it comes to the acquisition of values, you need role models and space to experiment. Is that how you see it, Frau Wilhelm?

Wilhelm:For me, the theory of the German sociologist Hans Joas is helpful on this topic. Joas assumes that small children cannot yet distinguish between people and values. They take over what is shown to them. If everyone around you smokes, that might just be part of it. According to Joas, a small child cannot say that my dad is very nice, but his values ​​are stupid. This differentiation does not yet work. But young people can do that very well. They question what they know from home and think about it.

Are there good and bad values, or are values ​​relative or even random?

Child ski: They are not accidental, but they are relative. That means you have to look at them in the context of a value system. A value like justice, for example, would be universally desirable. However, it can be put into perspective by others. In many Asian countries, for example, the idea that people should serve society is important. In Anglo-Saxon countries, people take the position that nature and society should serve people. These are other values ​​that compete, for example, with a value such as justice.

We talked about sustainability and autonomy. Where do you see other major value conflicts in today's society?

Child ski: Migration, for example, has rekindled the discussion of values. Other cultures have different values. With this comes the fear that our own values ​​are at risk.

Is migration driving our debate on values?

Wilhelm: Since the clash of different value systems entails thinking about values ​​and thus reassurance or change, migration can definitely be described as a driver of the debate. I don't think that a fundamental change within society will become visible. Take the value of tolerance. I don't think anyone today is of the opinion that tolerance is no longer socially important.

What is happening at the moment is a weighing up of which values ​​are important to us. Is it more important to us that everyone is welcome and that this also affects our own values, or do we accept that we simply do not welcome certain people?

Where do you see the neuralgic points in this value debate?

Child ski: Some of the migrants have difficulties adapting to the new value system. This is especially true for adults, whose value system is already relatively firmly established.

Is that where conflicts arise?

Child ski:Not necessarily. The real problem is segregation. When the immigrants meet and exchange ideas with people in the country of immigration, this promotes mutual understanding. If this is not the case, it can lead to the fact that you do not get to know and understand each other.

Does this lead to the emergence of parallel societies that coexist but hardly have anything to do with one another?

Child ski:In Switzerland this is not yet so pronounced, but such developments can be observed in many large cities around the world. This can then lead to conflicts.

Because you don't understand each other?

Child ski:Values ​​are like language. When you have different value systems, it is difficult to communicate with each other.

That speaks for a social mix. Where does it happen - at school?

Wilhelm:The school actually brings many different young people together. However, the districts are becoming more and more differentiated, especially in the cities. This means that people with a comparable social status often live there. The social mix is ​​limited accordingly.