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Generation 1989? A critique of a popular diagnosis

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It is doubtful whether the diagnosis of a post-Wall generation in Germany can be confirmed. However, a narrative of the self as belonging to a post-Wall generation can be noted. The protagonists of this self-narrative are typically young West Germans with an academic background and aspirations for future leadership, while the East German post-’89 narration seems to be rather muted. This paper will provide some insights from a methodological point of view into the self-narrative of the post-’89 generation. The main finding of this research note is that two narratives of the post-Wall generation can be found - one as the genealogy of contemporary (West German) society, and the other as the rhizome of a society (East German) that is fading away.



This article assumes patterns of interpretation which are intended to describe social and historical circumstances. One such pattern is that of the generation, popular above all as a category in essays that analyse the times. In particular, Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X (1995) can be seen as the inspiration for further studies, literature, and film devoted to painting a picture of the generation of youth of the early 1990s. Among the numerous classics of the film productions of this generation are Slackers, Clerks, and SubUrbia. With Everything’s Gone Green(2006), Coupland presented his own portrait of a generation in film. The generation portrayed has little hope of attaining the prosperity of its parents, but despite these prospects it stays cool. This diagnosis has global validity: although these sketches were designed for North America, their motifs are also relevant in other regions of the world. Although both the USA and Germany are described as countries which have a ‘unique path’ to follow, the question of a Generation X has also been taken up in Germany. Of particular interest are the fall of the Berlin Wall and the process of reunification as apparently the last historical events that could shape a generation. The attempt to depict a ‘Generation ’89’ or ‘Children of the Wall’ (Pannen: 1994) shares, at the same time, the background of the diagnosis of Generation X. Descriptions are made of the conflict of a young generation which must find its way amid the uncertainties of late modernity. The parents’ generation enjoys a prosperity of which their children can only dream. This narrative can be found in portraits of both Germany and the USA.

The rapidly changing attempts at applying labels offer an insight in terms of diagnosing the times. The problem of generations ends when a generation ends (Neckel: 1993). The problem might be that the model of the overweening parents’ generation (the protest generation of West Germany) blocks our view of the shape of the younger generation. There have been a great many attempts at diagnosis in Germany: as a result of the particular course the country has taken and its historical rifts, attempts at portraying generations are particularly popular there. The last great historical event seen as relevant for a generation is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Alongside the theoretical reflection that one could speak of a generation shaped by the ‘great political event of the fall of the Wall’, a different tone in criticism and a new political style of the generation can be perceived, which, deviating from the model of the protest generation, was possibly prematurely assessed as the ‘coming out’ of a new generation (cf. Leggewie: 1995). Parallel to the diagnosis of a ‘Generation ’89’ in sociological research on youth and generations, the self-narrative of such a generation can also be observed (cf. Gloger: 2008). What seems especially puzzling is the disappearance and renewed flaring up of these assertions. The selfnarratives were first visible in the mid-1990s. After a period of silence over this label, a leading article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung depicted the ‘Eighty-Niners’ as the main losers in the economic crisis (Satar: 2008). The CEO of IG Metall, Berthold Huber, was quoted in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel as saying ‘I am more Eighty-Niner than Sixty-Eighter’ (Tietz: 2009). These examples demonstrate the special power of this generational rhetoric.

This paper is intended to recount an exploratory study in which the generational pattern of interpretation is considered at the level of self-narrative. The interpretation suggested is that the generational shape of the Eighty- Niners be treated as a felt community that, in any case, involves little in the way of obligations to act. The emphasis in this paper is on methodological considerations. The sociologist Norbert Elias says that what he calls ‘destroying myths’ is a fundamental task of his discipline. There are many prescientific interpretations and explanations in circulation relating to social life. It is up to the sociologist to test, criticize, or expand upon them. Such academic progress can lie in the better coordination of theory and practice, the discovery of new contexts, the confirmation of a vague presumption, or something similar (Elias: 1970). In my study, the thesis of a Generation ’89 is seen as a prescientific declaration which, on the one hand, won out through the power of persuasion. At the same time, no conclusive answer can be given to the question of where the particular commonality among the people belonging to these age groups lies. On the contrary: categories of social inequality, such as social group and class, deliver more accurate explanations in respect of the questions of late-modern uncertainties (precariousness). It may be that talk of a Generation ’89 can be understood as the rhetoric of an intelligentsia becoming self-reflexive, without being embraced by the majority of the age groups in question. It is also striking that the generational rhetoric on 1989 is counterintuitive: although it might at first be assumed that this is first and foremost about an East German generational rhetoric – the generation of witnesses to the fall of the Wall – most statements in fact come from Western Germany. The Eighty-Niners are prominent in the Green Party, while many West German authors have attempted to portray their own generation. We can mention, for example, Stefan Pannen’s essay on the ‘Children of the Wall’, and Susanne Leinemann’s travelogue from the area of the former GDR and account of friendships made there. Not specifically on the Eighty-Niners, but on the shape of a ‘youth generation’ of the 1990s, numerous further reflections have been forthcoming, the most prominent of them being the essay ‘Generation Golf ’ by Florian Illies. In this paper, I first offer a few methodological considerations on generational studies, before going on to crucially examine the generational rhetoric of an Eighty-Niner generation.

Methodological remarks

If we consider the contemporary debate on generations, a number of attempts to explain it come up, which on the one hand might exhibit a certain power of persuasion, as it is not without reason that the concept of generations has entered the language of advertising. Alongside the generational labels X and Y, the German-speaking countries have their own versions: Generation Golf, the Eighty-Niners, Generation XTC, Generation Internship, and many others. On the book market we find a number of corresponding publications every year. In spite of their evident popularity, these ideas remain controversial to many. Can we speak of a core of experience, or are the protagonists of generational rhetoric on a post-’89 generation simply the victims of a PR fad? As a result of the conditional power of persuasion of current generational rhetoric, along with the inflationary appearance of concomitant new publications, certain voices would more or less banish the concept of generations from academic discussion. This paper aims to argue the contrary: it is the supposed weakness of the concept of generations – its inflationary usage – that is in fact its strength; this popularity – including journalism and advertising – is a sign that this rhetoric can represent a part of reality, even if it is not entirely or universally persuasive. While some contributions may be criticized as analytical snapshots, they are worthy of a closer look as part of the social reality.

What turns the issue of a generation into a ‘generation’? The issue of a generation begins when a generation ends. This has been the case following ’68 (Neckel: 1993). Some time after the anti-authoritarian revolts of the 1960s, the protagonists of the movement appeared as representatives of a generation. A carrier group can be identified from which the protest emerged and which exhibits a common direction that is articulated with identity formation in mind. The question of what comes after the revolt is always at the same time a question about the carrier group for new waves of protest. Later social and political movements must face up to comparison with the anti-authoritarian movement, and the result is not to their advantage - there appears to be no single political successor generation to the protest generation of the 1960s, younger age groups appear shapeless, and the question of commonalities turns out to be diffuse and contradictory. It is for this reason that there are so many attempts to describe this generation. The discursiveness of the respective ‘youth generation’ is the expression of its shapelessness. If the essence of this generation were clear-cut, then no narratives would need to be developed for it.

When looking at the question of a new political generation, uncertainties should be pointed out which are of significance for the narrative of a post-Eighty-Niner generation, and therefore a post-Sixty-Eighter generation too. These theoretical and conceptual uncertainties are part of this self-referentialism - the statements that are made are based on the awareness of living in fluid times. Theories, interpretations and narratives – in examination of oneself and others, and many narratives on the ‘experiences’ of one’s own generation as well as many studies on youth – can be seen after a short time as in need of adjustment or even entirely obsolete. This shortened half-life of narratives ultimately leads to a half-life of identity. A further uncertainty conducive to the popularity of discussion on generations lies in the increasing theoretical clout of the previous types of identification. The plausibility of ‘well-worn’ patterns of interpretation such as social group, class, and nation-state has abated. A reason for this is, on the one hand, the political burden of these concepts, and on the other the difficulty in using them to describe and explain complex social contexts.

In particular for the diagnosis of a post-Sixty-Eighter generation, the increasingly complex social reality is of significance. Since it appears barely possible to fit the many diagnoses of contemporary society spawned by the social sciences into one binding formula, portraits of a generation can only be convincing for part of society. As I will show in the next part of this paper, this is particularly true for the East German part of the rhetoric. How is sociological analysis reacting to these matters?

Research on the topic of generations in the social sciences exhibits a comparable development to that of sociological biographical research, in which the analytical focus of the biography has shifted towards ‘biographication’, where the analytical interest lies in the process which forms events during someone’s life into a biography. Instead of speaking of generations and generational positions, it is now the self-description of a generation that is discussed. Following the formula of the political scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell, this research program can be described as ‘Who examines the generation, in relation to which circumstances, and over which channel?’

People examining the topic of generations negotiate the common experiences of an age group which can be seen as decisive for a community shared with people of the same age. These common formative experiences can lead to a generational consciousness which can also contain converse interpretations. Karl Mannheim’s classic conception, with the categories ‘generational location’, ‘generational context’, and ‘generational units’, continues to be relevant (Mannheim: 1964). The generational location describes one or several age groups in the historical context. From this common location come certain influences which Mannheim describes as ‘pressure’ or ‘opportunity’. The econometric category for these circumstances is the concept of cohorts.1 The generational context now describes the special ‘fate’ of these age groups in the historical space. This is the generational context. Classical formative events are war, revolution and inflation, whose consequences are difficult to escape. The question of which experiences members of particular age groups are exposed thus leads to the question of the examination of these circumstances. In analyses examining the topic of generations, the focus is now shifted from generational location – i.e. the characteristics of specific age groups – to the examination of them. No conclusive or entirely convincing portrayal of a generation is intended to be drawn, but the process of the formation of a felt community should be understood. It is assumed that there are a number of diagnoses, partly contradictory, but which concur with the experiences of many people. Individuals enter society and undergo more or less predetermined experiences (school, university, training, national service, etc.) allowed by the institutions and norms of society. According to the relevance allotted by society to the category of ‘age’ in the organization of social life, a generational consciousness emerges to a more or less distinct degree.

A good and accessible metaphor for imagining the development of a generational consciousness against its social background can be a view of the vibrant traffic of a city by night. Individuals can be imagined as the vehicles travelling through the streets. Year groups can be imagined as a ‘wave’ in the cityscape. Regulations and institutions direct the course taken by these vehicles through the city. On the edge of this course are signs which make the place one passes memorable. There are points that everyone remembers: major junctions, traffic lights, and so on. Yet the question of which further landmarks are remembered is negotiated discursively. If one compares one’s experiences with others – even with personal memories – it is also a question of comparing which memories are seen as relevant. Major junctions, traffic lights, and so on apply to all. The question that remains negotiable is whether it is shops by the side of the road, striking architecture, electronic advertising or other things that are compared. This would apply both to the compilation of an official ‘street map’ and to individual description.2

Transferred to social narratives, this means that there is a rich store of circumstances on which these narratives can feed. In this context, we again return to the aforementioned theoretical uncertainties: the array of findings in the social sciences on today’s society does not make convincing narratives on memory, society, and so on impossible, but they are becoming more complex and therefore more difficult. In his study on acceleration, Hartmut Rosa shows that, with the increasingly short half-life of knowledge, identities also acquire a shorter half-life (Rosa: 2006). The multitude of diagnoses and essays can therefore be seen not as a sign of the dwindling power to make the category of generation convincing, but rather as an expression of the difficulty in describing the increasingly complex, fast-changing world through well-known concepts – and this problem is true not only for the category of generation. I return to the metaphor of how memory can be imagined in its social context in the last section of this essay in order to depict two discursive motifs which appear in the selfnarrative of the Eighty-Niner.

The Anatomy of a Pattern of Interpretation

The appearance of a new political generation known as the ‘Eighty-Niner’ generation was first discussed in Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. The political style of the younger generation was perceived as deviating from the overwhelming standard of the protest generation, and the tones evident in literary criticism and artistic representations (prominently in pop literature) were also seen as signs of the appearance of a new generation. The attention of the mass media was directed to this generation label by Ulrich Greiner’s challenging response to critical reviewers of Botho Strauss’s volume of stories Wärmen – Wohnen – Lügen / Living – Glimmering – Lying. Raising the conflict between the Sixty-Eighter Strauss and the young reviewers of his book to a matter of principle, Greiner postulated a generational conflict between the two groups. Is a linguistic creation by a possibly wrong-headed person in a genre that in any case evokes controversial theses powerful enough to initiate a debate on generations? Greiner’s diagnosis of Generation ’89 has a prehistory prior to the great historical event of the fall of the Wall. In the public sphere of the end of the 1980s, a turning point in history was posited which can be conceived as representing a premature millennial turning point well before the year 2000. This is an atypical fin-de-siècle discourse: the end of somewhat familiar and old certainties is diagnosed, but this diagnosis leaves it unclear what should be brought in to replace the familiar (Rosa: 1999). Analyses from the 1980s recognised this ‘no-longer’ that continues to shape the debate today more strongly than it did in the mid/late 1980s: the journalist Reinhard Mohr recognizes in the description of his own generation – the ‘onlooker generation’ – a successor generation, ‘Generation ’88’, which is more active than its predecessor, but decidedly less political (Mohr: 1992). The psychoanalyst Klaus Theweleit writes that what was in ’68 love is in ’86 death (Theweleit: 1991). Whereas free love in the 1960s was a counter-strategy against the dowdy, conservative hegemony, the threat of AIDS brought with it the threat of an attempt at a conservative counter-revolution. The sociologist Hans- Jürgen Krysmanski comments ironically on this debate on the essence of a post-’89 generation that the debate on Sixty-Eighters and Eighty-Niners is in fact boring; far more important is what happened to the ‘386ers’ and ‘486ers’ – and the following cohorts of Pentium processors (Krysmanski: 2001).3 Notable in some opinions is the view that the expectation of a turning point in history was already there before the actual great event for the end of the 1980s, the fall of the Wall. The common diagnosis of a nolonger – as in the loss of social certainty, ‘precariousness’, the absence of role models and formative historical events, the powerlessness of criticism, and much more - can be described as a discourse of absence.4

The fall of the Wall is the last great German historical event to be interpreted as a possible shaper of generations after 1968. The question now arises as to whether and how this event is convincing for the self-narrative of an Eighty-Niner generation, as most comments on self-narrative come from the Western part of the country, while biographical rifts after 1989 are most likely in the former East. It is here that the events of the systemic upheaval have changed every biography: existing work contracts were torn up, curricula in schools and universities were changed, and finally even the social elites in the former GDR were transposed. ‘Unique characteristics’, for example in law, were entirely scrapped after 1990. With this diagnosis of ‘new times’, the discursive comparison between ’68 and ’89 becomes especially prominent. We can speak of a mythologisation of the Federal Republic of Germany, as the events of the year 1989 had at most a moderate influence on the diagnoses of the times in question, but could not be seen as causes. The content-free signifier ’89 is filled up with various contents which symbolize a no-longer but cannot directly be connected with the event.

Generation 1989? Two Discursive Motifs

Looking at the self-narrative of the protagonists of an Eighty-Niner generation, two discursive motifs can be identified which I will characterize as the genealogy of the Federal Republic of Germany for West German self-narratives and as a rhizome of a vanished society. Starting from the debate on the diagnosis of an Eighty-Niner generation, there has been a series of self-narratives as protagonists of the Eighty-Niner generation. A Generation X, which has adopted the base year of 1989 in Germany, is the third political generation after the ‘Flakhelfer Generation’ (also known internationally as the ‘Silent Generation’) and the Protest Generation. As was shown in the previous section, this is above all a symbolic opposition to the idea of a ’68er generation. The rhizome is a non-hierarchical, nonlinear discursive motif. A genealogy, on the other hand, is based on clear boundaries and classifications; it is clear which part of the ‘concept chain’ refers to which other link and exactly where the relationships between the individual members lie.

The rhizome is an anti-genealogy: whereas in a genealogy the relationship between the described and describer is based on reliability and clearness, in a rhizome a great many different identifications, interpretations and crossreferences occur, hence the metaphor of network or roots. I would now like to explain more closely the specific generational rhetoric of a post- Eighty-Niner generation using the two concepts genealogy and rhizome. If one imagines the model of traffic flowing through the nocturnal streets, a few fundamental differences occur between the situation in West and East Germany. The clarity and reliability which the West German rhetoric refers to can hardly be assumed with East German statements; unlike in the West, the historical schism left real incursions here, with existing career paths interrupted, curricula at schools and universities altered and the need for everybody to become accustomed to a new system, especially young people and adolescents of the GDR of the late-1980s. This incursion did not affect everybody in the same way, but instead ’89 triggered a number of movements; for some people it was a breakout and liberation, while for others it meant a setback. Economic fortunes also went in various directions. On the one hand many new opportunities sprang up after 1989, but at the same time there were also new uncertainties.

However, no genealogy can be recognized from the East German selfnarratives as Eighty-Niners, but in fact the turbulences of the historical schism dispersed and stirred up all existing structures so that there was no fertile ground for a collective narrative to be sown; unlike in West Germany, there is no continuity of tradition to refer to, since many intellectual, cultural and political ‘unique characteristics’ of the GDR (e.g. in law) have not survived since 1989. The events of 1989 do, however, remain important reference points in the respective biographies. From among the many and varied changes of fortune following the system change after 1989, numerous voices of self-narrative have emerged which are able to recount their fortunes and those of their contemporaries against the background of a common experience. The system change is the common denominator of the experiences, but not a narrative that can yield a commonality of memory.

At the beginning of this paper came the observation of the self-narrative of a post-Eighty-Niner generation. From an initial exploration, two discursive motifs of an Eighty-Niner generation were introduced, which show that the events of 1989 in the West represent above all a symbolic point of reference; no other event of the late 1980s was able to illustrate the discourse of ‘no longer’ better than the fall of the Wall. The actual effects of this event were not enough for the witnesses to form a distinct ‘we society’ from this experience. Their discursive motif is that of a rhizome. There are many diverse biographies whose reference points are the year 1989, and the biographical consequences left in the biographies by the fall of the Wall were too numerous to postulate a commonality from the event. This coexistence of two discursive motifs is an important hypothesis for further studies with witnesses after 1989.


Martin Gloger, University of Kassel. Studied Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Gottingen. After graduation he worked as teaching assistant at the same institution. He received his PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Kassel, with a thesis about the ‘1989 Generation’. In his research he is focusing on cultural sociology and media studies.



1 Classical questions of studies of cohorts would include how opportunities on the labour market for graduates develop over a longer period, as well as which labour market measures and institutional changes have which effects, whether high-birth year groups are advantaged or weak, and many other questions.

2 In the sociology of knowledge ‘cognitive mapping’ is also spoken of.

3 The generation of new generations from technical innovations in fact offers an interesting opportunity for using the concept of generations. It is important to note, however, that concepts like ‘youth’ and ‘generation’ are social terms, not statistical ones: it is not about emphasising commonalities from the 14-30 age group, but rather asking how the consciousness of a commonality is formed from this age group. The same is true for generations and cohorts: here too we ask how a consciousness of commonalities is formed within one year. In this way, a generational rhetoric can also become detached from the biological basis and include people who are actually younger or older than the centre of the year groups who are perceived as the real active anchors of the generation. Thus, the typical means of communication and network formation of those born under the sign of digitalisation must be looked at, as well as the differentiation of usership by age groups.

4 The philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard is one who brings this motif to the forefront of his examination of the time.


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