With her commitment to the environment, 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg has provoked a debate on values among young people all over the world. How do values arise, and how do they change? An interview with social ethics expert Monika Wilhelm and economist Martin Kindschi.
Inspired by the 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, many young people are now concerned with questions of climate protection and nutrition. How has this young woman, who was also invited to this year’s World Economic Forum, managed to attract so much attention?
Monika Wilhelm:The values Greta Thunberg propagates aren’t new: The subject of sustainability has been mobilizing people since back in the 1970s and 1980s. What’s striking in this case is that a young person has succeeded in relaunching the debate. A person talking to people of her own age seems to be more effective than calls from teachers or politicians.
Martin Kindschi: Greta Thunberg has grown up in northern Europe in an environment molded by values such as equality, justice and autonomy, a culture that promises many opportunities and possibilities for young people. Now Thunberg has realized that climate change could limit this future full of possibility. That’s why she’s become politically active and wants to change things, by calling for school strikes. Her success comes from being able to speak directly to other young people who find themselves in the same situation.
The Greta effect has become a global phenomenon that has reached young people in Switzerland and even Australia. Why do schoolkids in Australia identify with a girl from northern Europe?
Kindschi: Values of autonomy and equality are widespread in all these countries, and enjoy a high status. That’s why Greta Thunberg’s initiatives are relevant for them too.
What values are being negotiated? Martin Kindschi, you talk of autonomy and equality while you, Monika Wilhelm, talk of sustainability and protecting the environment.
Wilhelm: In the 1970s US political scientist Ronald Inglehart posited a theory of value change. He emphasized people’s primary need to be safe and looked after physically. Once this has been met, the need for beauty, self-expression, and culture grows. The generation that grew up during World War II had mainly primary needs, and their key values were materialistic. The postwar generation had these basic needs met, so for them, values such as self-actualization were important. In other words, our values are context-dependent. Empirical studies now show that the value system changed at the beginning of the new century. Many people feel anxious and disconcerted. It’s no longer clear whether they have a rosy future or not. The issue of climate change is important, as well as other questions such as equality and autonomy.
What are the implications of this new uncertainty?
Wilhelm: The needs for safety and self-actualization are beginning to mingle. Young people are orienting themselves toward post-materialist values such as autonomy. At the same time they’re worried about their future. This is why the question of sustainability is becoming important. For this reason I don’t find it strange at all when a striving for autonomy is mentioned in the same breath as a striving for sustainability. One is about safeguarding physical needs and continued life on this planet; the other is about self-expression and self-realization. In this generation these two themes have become entangled. This entanglement is a consequence of the new uncertainty.
Kindschi: In this context the research also talks of self-transcendence. People are realizing that resources are limited and that we have to live more sustainably and not just seek to satisfy our own needs in the short term.
What do you mean by self-transcendence?
Kindschi: It encompasses many different values, for example helping other people, or advocating for nature or for society as a whole. They’re values that go beyond the self.
Why are young people becoming politicized right now?
Kindschi: Greta Thunberg was probably responding to a feeling of powerlessness. You could say that states are playing with resources and the climate, with everyone passing the buck, and not actually getting much done.
So this powerlessness has politicized young people?
Wilhelm: I wouldn’t say young people are getting political now, because that would imply that they weren’t before. This isn’t the first time that young people have been politically active, and it’s not the first time there has been an environmental movement. Many young people on their way to adulthood go through a phase of being very committed to the common good. For me it was the demonstrations against the war in Iraq after 9/11, when the whole school took to the streets.
So political engagement is also a youth phenomenon?
Wilhelm: If you want to understand current events there’s no getting away from those behind the protest. To that extent they’re a youth phenomenon, but they’re also a media phenomenon. These days youth movements can grow very rapidly with the help of social media. They quickly gain visibility and reach a lot of people. In ten years’ time we’ll see whether anything lasting has come of it.
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 the subject of controversial academic debate. There is, however, consensus on the role of values: that they can help give orientation. They can satisfy needs, such as the need for pleasure or recognition. Values define a direction and a goal, and they are bound up with meaning. Within my network or system of values I can shape my actions and my life in a way that has sense and meaning.
How do young people arrive at their value system?
Kindschi: When people are younger it’s certainly their parents who have the greatest influence, and children orient themselves to their values. But there has been an academic debate about whether it’s parents or peers who are ultimately more influential. What has emerged is the idea that both these factors are relevant depending on the situation. In other words, if parents attach importance to how their children spend their money or which friends they hang out with, they will still be highly relevant in terms of imparting values. If this is less the case, young people will look for other role models: People who behave as they would wish.
In other words children and young people adopt values of their own accord. How does that work?
Kindschi: Often it’s a matter of trial and error. In other words, they try out certain behaviors, either behaviors stemming from their own inspiration, or behaviors children and young people observe among their peers. In their search for the ideal self-image, they associate certain peer behaviors with other attributes such as success or satisfaction.
So when it comes to adopting values people need role models and room to experiment. Is that also how you see it, Monika Wilhelm?
Wilhelm: For me the theory put forward by German sociologist Hans Joas is helpful in this regard. Joas assumes that small children aren’t yet able to distinguish between people and values. They adopt the example they’re given. If everyone around you smokes, maybe that’s just the way it is. According to Joas, a small child is incapable of saying my dad’s really nice but he has stupid values. They’re not yet able to make this distinction. Young people, on the other hand, can. They question and think about what they know from home.
Is there such a thing as good and bad values, or are values relative or even random?
Kindschi: They’re not random, but they are relative. In other words, you have to look at them in the context of a value system. A value such as justice, for example, would be desirable on a universal basis. But it can be relativized by other values. In many Asian countries, for example, the idea that people should serve society is very important. In Anglo-Saxon countries people take the view 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 conflicts of values in present-day society?
Kindschi: Migration, for example, has reignited the values debate again. Other cultures have other values. This brings about the fear that our own values could be jeopardized.
Is migration driving the debate on values?
Wilhelm: Given that the clashing of different value systems leads to a consideration, and then acceptance or alteration of those values, migration can certainly be seen as a driver of the debate. But I’m not so sure that we’re seeing a fundamental change within society as a result. Take the value of tolerance. I don’t think that anyone believes these days that tolerance is no longer important in social terms. What’s happening at the moment is that we’re weighing up what values are important to us, and how important. Is it more important to us for everyone to be welcome and for this to maybe influence our values, or do we accept that we simply don’t welcome certain people?
Where do you see the neuralgic points in this debate on values?
Kindschi:Some migrants have difficulty adapting to the new value system – especially adults, whose value system is already fairly well established.
So this produces conflict?
Kindschi:Not necessarily. The real problem is segregation. If immigrants meet and talk with people in the country they’ve migrated to, it fosters mutual understanding. If this doesn’t happen, it can lead to a situation where people don’t get to know and understand each other.
The result is different societies that exist in parallel but have virtually nothing to do with each other?
Kindschi: In Switzerland this isn’t so pronounced yet, but you can see it happening in many of the world’s cities, and that can lead to conflict.
Because people don’t understand each other?
Kindschi: Values are like a language. When you have different value systems it’s difficult to communicate.
That’s an argument for social mixing. Where does that happen? In schools?
Wilhelm: Schools really do bring many different young people together. But neighborhoods are increasingly differentiated, especially in cities. This means that in many cases, each neighborhood has people of a similar social status, which limits the possibilities in terms of social mixing.
Martin Kindschi is a research and teaching assistant and project manager working for the Chair of Marketing and Market Research and the interdisciplinary University Research Priority Program on Social Networks. His PhD thesis examined the origins and development of values and their interplay with the decisions, behaviors and characteristics of young people in the dynamic environment of social networks in school classes.
Monika Wilhelm is an assistant at the Institute of Social Ethics, part of the University of Zurich Faculty of Theology. Her research looks at how literature can exert an influence on ethically relevant dimensions at the individual or societal level, and what this means in terms of our understanding of ethics.