Generation COVID: Virus has changed young people's lives

Patricia and Mathilde wanted to work abroad, while Christian had planned to take part in international music competitions. The coronavirus pandemic has forced them to change their plans. How are they coping?

Nineteen-year-old classical piano student Christian Gassenmeier had big plans for 2020: He wanted to take part in three international competitions in May and June, then travel to Lithuania in July to take part in a master class there  - followed by two more master classes in Italy later in the year. But none of that happened; even the regular concerts planned by his college in the western German city of Detmold were all canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hardly anything was "normal" for Christian this year. He used to go to the conservatory every day for intensive practice sessions, but this year he had to stay home and practice alone on his own piano.

"I was not very effective," he admitted. An aspiring professional musician should practice more than four hours per day. But with all the competitions canceled, Christian found himself without any goals to work toward - and his motivation suffered. "Sometimes I was very lazy."

He has managed to pull himself together and rekindle his motivation by discovering new pieces of music and improving his basic techniques. Now he's dreaming of the new challenges that lie ahead. 

Pandemic forces a rethink

Like Christian, Mathilde de Maiziere is 19 years old. After graduating from school in August 2019 she went to Peru and began what was supposed to be a yearlong volunteer program. It had always been her dream to do some aid work abroad, rather than traveling as a tourist or taking up odd jobs. "I wanted to learn the language, immerse myself in a different culture," she said.

Mathilde found a volunteer position working with young children in a primary school and kindergarten in the Peruvian capital, Lima. She organized extracurricular activities and guided the children as they explored nature in the big city, helping them to grow vegetables in the school garden. She recalled the amazement on a little boy's face when he found out how lettuce grows: "'What? We can eat this?' he exclaimed. He had only ever experienced food as 'something you buy in a market!'" she said.

But after seven months abroad, the pandemic forced Mathilde to quit her job and return to Germany. The journey was long and arduous, and when she arrived back home she was forced to adjust to a new situation. "There I was, suddenly having to make new plans. I had to figure out what to do in the changed coronavirus times," she said.

Back in Germany, Mathilde started a physical fitness program and took up creative activities like sewing. She also reached out to people - mainly via chat, but also in person. In retrospect, she said, she benefited from this forced break and used her time well. Being in Germany made it easy to get the paperwork done to enroll at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. The classes are held remotely, but Mathilde said she finds them quite easy to follow.

"I have not even once been to the actual university building yet," she said, laughing. And she finds it "odd" to meet fellow students only as names on a screen or hear their voices in Zoom conferences. "I have never seen most of their faces," she said. But she feels she has settled into her new way of life, dominated by the pandemic, and can imagine carrying on with it in this way for a couple more years.

Final push into adulthood

Patricia Paule, 28, had finished her studies at Munich University and had several years of work experience and various internships under her belt. She told DW she had invested a lot of time and energy into building a perfect career, and had reached a point where she was running out of energy.

In 2020, she was planning to emigrate to Ireland "to work there for a few years," combining a job and travel. 

Before the big move she took some time out to visit relatives in Spain, and had planned to start a pilgrimage there like the one she had done in 2019 when she had hiked from Portugal to Spain. 

But then Spain went into lockdown: "It all got very serious very quickly," she remembered. Traveling back to Germany was not easy, as most flights were booked out. Back home she hit rock bottom: "All my plans had evaporated - I didn't know what to do."

Patricia had toyed with the idea of quitting her job and starting a career as an independent coach and consultant in innovation management. She decided to take the risk and embrace change. "The coronavirus situation gave me the final push that I needed," she said.

Christian, Mathilde and Paula are looking back at 2020 in a conciliatory mood. None of them feel it has been a "lost year" - "definitely not!" was the response.

While there may have been a happy end to the year for these three individuals, sociologists warn that the situation for the young generation remains fragile. "This has marked a turning point in young people's careers. It hit them especially hard as they were just setting out," said Michael Corsten, a sociologist at Hildesheim University who coined the German term "generation corona."

"Young people aged 18 to 30 are setting the course of their lives: They have graduated from school, they're deciding on a profession, finding a partner, making their own home," said Corsten. "Some call it the 'rush hour of life,' because it is a time when a lot of important life decisions are made in quick succession."

Corsten is conducting a survey of the impact COVID-19 has had on young people's lives. He believes the pandemic has led them to question their decisions and their core values, just as when they started out in life. This, he suspects, could lead them to radically rethink the way they live their lives, and ask "how could we live differently?" 

New opportunities

"The coronavirus pandemic forces us to pause and rethink," said Heike Solga, a sociology professor at Berlin's Free University. "Many young people now say to themselves 'Well, that may have been my dream job, but now I can see how it doesn't hold up in times of crisis, so maybe I should change course and choose a different profession.'"

Analyzing the job market, Solga has observed that many young people who had planned to begin vocational training this year decided to change tack and stay in school instead. "They are opting to stay in a familiar environment, rather than embark on something new at a time of insecurity," she told DW. 

"The pandemic poses a real challenge to young people," she said. "But it could also offer new opportunities."

Source: (website of the German TV station Deutsche Welle), revised by iMOVE, April 2021