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Youth's Resentful Protest In Germany

Public Eye's Brian Montopoli is writing weekly dispatches for while living and working in Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He will return to Public Eye in October.

Berlin, a young woman told me the other day, makes you lazy.

This is a city in which countless young people lounge in cafes and bars late into every night. Rent is cheap, as is public transportation, which makes it easy to get by without a job, or not much of one.

If you're an artist, or just say you are, you have a relatively easy time finding a grant. If you're a student, you have inexpensive higher education at your disposal and little pressure to leave university.

Berlin makes an aimless lifestyle look awfully appealing.

As a result, hordes of out-of-towners, including many Americans, flock to Berlin to lead lives that would be impossible at home. For those who seek a more traditional lifestyle, however, this can be a city of frustration.

The unemployment rate is 17.5 percent. The economy has been stuck in neutral for years, hobbled by the uneasy integration of the former east and west (though it is showing signs of improvement). And thanks to Germany's labor market, its cultural traditions and some high expectations, ambitious young people have been hard hit.

The Guardian's Berlin correspondent, Luke Harding, has dubbed Germany a "gerontocracy." Indeed, the aged have significant power here, exerting a heavy influence on politics and culture.

In a country in which wrinkles confer status, it can be difficult for younger Germans to be seriously considered for quality jobs. It doesn't help that they start so late — it's rare for students here to leave university with a serious degree before age 25, and many remain in school into their 30s.

Even if the young are able to secure good jobs out of school, most begin at the bottom of the ladder, without much opportunity for serious responsibility, or a high salary, for years. It's part of the reason that Germany has Europe's lowest birthrate, and thus a shrinking population — who wants to have kids before you can really support them?

There are, of course, some opportunities for recent graduates to make good money, most notably in fields such as consulting, finance and engineering. But many of Berlin's young people want work they find more appealing.

"People want to have cool careers, in things like journalism," Philip Jaeger, a 24-year-old Humboldt University student studying philosophy and history, tells

In the publishing industry, he says, young people are expected to work a series of unpaid internships with no guarantee that they will turn into jobs. "The company can say 'We can get these young, educated people for free,' and so they do."

The frustrations of the young and educated are now making headlines. Earlier this year, members of a group called Hamburg Umsonst — Hamburg For Free — engaged in a rather unorthodox crime: In broad daylight, they walked into a gourmet food shop dressed as superheroes and stole luxury items such as Kobe beef and French chocolates off the shelves.

The group, seemingly inspired both by Robin Hood and the cult German film "The Edukators," left a note in the store. It read, in part, "Without the power of superheroes, there is no chance for survival in this city of millionaires. Although we produce the wealth of Hamburg, we hardly have anything to show for it. It does not have to stay like this."

They elaborated on the Internet, writing that the group was taking a stand against the economic precariousness faced by 20- and 30-somethings in Germany who do not have access to the same wealth and opportunities as their elders. The luxury items, they said, went to those the system failed: Mothers working as low-wage cleaning ladies, publishing interns working for free.

A year earlier, the group had staged a similar raid at the exclusive Seven Seas Restaurant, dumping the contents of the restaurant's buffet into garbage bags before making their getaway.

The problems of these middle-class young people are not the most serious in Germany — one wonders how precarious the economic lives can be of those who can protest with such flair and so little ultimate purpose. Members of Germany's native and immigrant underclass face a much more dire economic landscape, and, unlike the young middle class, they can't turn to their parents to bail them out.

But Hamburg Umsonst's antics do spotlight a growing anger among young Germans with high expectations and unsatisfying opportunities.

"Young people here want to work," Jaeger tells "But they don't want to work for free."
By Brian Montopoli