Schoolkids notoriously act up when the teacher’s not looking. Just like a class in Eschweiler, Germany, that decided to surprise their retiring teacher by inviting one of the experts they had studied to join their seminar.

The expert was Klaus Hurrelmann, Hertie School Professor of Health and Education, who frequently finds himself invited to speak to 17- or 18-year-olds studying his theory of adolescent socialisation for their university-qualifying exam, the Abitur. Hurrelmann’s Model of Productive Processing of Reality is a “meta-theory” that combines the work of generations of sociologists, educators and psychologists in 10 “maxims”.

These “theses” describe the interplay between nature and nurture that lead young people to understand their own identities. Hurrelmann says adolescence is a distinct and unique phase of life, not just a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. Young people on the verge of adulthood naturally find the topic fascinating, and when he comes to class he says they often receive him “like a pop-star.”

Sometimes, they hatch plans that this twinkly-eyed prof, with a hint of schoolboy-mischief, cannot pass up. “They had an ingenious idea,” said Hurrelmann. The Eschweiler class organised a “Who’s Who?” quiz to match the theories they’d studied with their authors. When they read one of Hurrelmann’s maxims, they held up a mask with his face. As they read the 10th maxim, Hurrelmann himself strode into class and said: “I can tell you about that myself.” The teacher was elated.

No question about it, this prof “gets” kids.

Clad in his customary black t-shirt and jacket, the youthful septuagenarian, with his reassuring manner and thoughtfully chosen words, musters both beatnik and statesman. A regular spokesman for and expert on young people in the German media, Hurrelmann comments on subjects ranging from political engagement to social media, health literacy or retirement planning. And he spends a lot of time on the ground studying his subjects – interviewing young people for the quadrennial “Shell Youth Study”, or visiting schools and working with students at the Hertie School.

Hurrelmann joined the faculty in 2009 to teach health, education and welfare policy after a distinguished career at the University of Bielefeld, where he founded the first German School of Public Health. He also frequently mentors student initiatives, like the well-established Teach First programme, which enlists graduates to teach at socially problematic schools. Hurrelmann says he is often impressed with the level of commitment and initiative students bring to the school.

The Hertie School curriculum is “a compact programme with precise preparation and a heavy reading load,” which students tackle with enthusiasm, he says. The “American style” interaction between professor and students requires lots of feedback and consultation with students, which takes time, he admits, “But it’s also more satisfying.”

An authority on Gens X, Y and Z

Besides studying adolescents, Hurrelmann also tries to understand what defines them – from baby boomers to Generation Z. His latest book, Gen Z – Between Climate Crisis and Coronavirus Pandemic (translated from the German Generation Greta, Beltz, 2020), written together with Erik Albrecht, is forthcoming from Routlege in 2021. It focuses on the growing loss of confidence in politicians and party politics, alongside a newfound political engagement, of Generation Z – the “post-millenials”. Hurrelmann is also an expert on Gen Y, about which he co- authored a book with Erik Albrecht, Die heimlichen Revolutionäre – Wie Generation Y unsere Welt verändert (The secret revolutionaries – How Generation Y is changing our world, Beltz, 2016).

“The kids almost always ask the same question: ‘Herr Hurrelmann, how did you get interested in this topic?’” Hurrelmann says. “Perhaps it’s because I had some trouble in my own youth and I wanted to explore why that happened.”

Every childhood has its traumas, some more dramatic than others – war, loss of a parent, or other events beyond a child’s control. These register with kids and shape who they are. Gen Y, born between 1986 and 2000 and sometimes known as “Millenials,” experienced 9/11 and the subsequent Great Recession. “Gen Y carries traits that come from the insecurity of not being able to plan for the future. It’s not as bad as the post-war youth, but there are parallels,” he says.

Gen Z, in turn, is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and responding to issues like climate change, racism and social inequality with a level of political engagement not seen in decades, Hurrelmann notes. “This is a political young generation,” he says.

Hurrelmann himself faced difficulties as a schoolboy. He and his mother fled from their home during the war and his father returned from a British prisoner of war camp several years later. The bright and bookish Klaus was recommended for the university track Gymnasium, although he did not come from an academic family. Supported by his mother, but derided by his father, who had little education, he felt out of place with schoolmates from more educated backgrounds. Feeling pressure to be “cool”, he fell in with the wrong crowd, was caught stealing, and got kicked out of school at the age of twelve.

Hurrelmann often refers to his childhood when speaking with kids today. “I tell them about this, and that’s valuable because they see I had problems too,” he says. “That puts us on a down-to-earth level, and they understand that my interest is a personal one.”

Ultimately, Hurrelmann finished his Abitur. He went on to study sociology, psychology and education at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Münster, earning a doctorate in sociology. He founded the first German School of Public Health at the University of Bielefeld, where he was Director of the Research Center SFB 227, "Prevention and Intervention in Childhood and Adolescence".

His research aims to help policymakers better support young people and create policies that will ensure their stable and secure future. It’s a broad agenda – encouraging young people to save for old age, integrating kids from migrant families into German society, examining the effects of digital media on socialisation, or getting young people to engage in politics. The last, Hurrelmann says, is particularly urgent. “Kids want to be taken seriously and see that they have opportunities,” he says.

Experiencing democracy at a young age – even in Kindergarten, by letting kids see that their voice counts – can instil these values as kids get older. In classes where young children were allowed to make the rules for inappropriate behaviour, they showed themselves to be even stricter than the adults, Hurrelmann says with a chuckle.

Based on the research for his recent book, Hurrelmann says Gen Z is not happy with the state of our society. “This is a very strong and vocal group – and it is an extraordinary shift in a very short time,” he says. “They are unleashing their energies on topics that concern the common good.” They are growing up with precarious developments like climate change, the coronavirus and rising inequality. This group is “under pressure”, says Hurrelmann, and time will tell how that plays out.

This is an updated version of a story that ran in 2017. For further information please click here to read whole story.

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.

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