It’s prime territory for Instagram. The big windowed cafes and the streets riddled with clean graffiti and muted jazz. It’s obvious why Leipzig has been called “the new Berlin.” It’s also the place to encounter Germany’s confident youth; off on their own for the first time in a new city to study, party, and make art and music. A new attitude of communalism is adopted by this generation unafraid, parted from their parent’s hazy memories of the partitioned Soviet state. The austerity and order of Leipzig’s streets speak to scenes of recent unification. The wealth is gated and cold. The figures in the crosswalk lights wear little hats. The punk rock scene of the south, once a beacon of renewal in the 1990’s, is appropriated and bastardized by students from the west. It is a city of subtle fusion and homogenization, surprisingly spared of the refugee communities common in Berlin and bigger cities… at least in the areas catered to students and tourists. For now, Leipzig is secure, self-assured, and a place for comfortable criticism.
Its wide student streets are sprinkled with nexuses of controlled culture: a gallery in an abandoned mill, a solidarity kitchen, or a Peruvian shop selling tapestries and dreadlock beads. This is the place for the lucky and the young to stop and make their place in a newly defined global West.
In one such café of white lined minimalism and carefully mismatched chairs, I sat down with my Leipzig host and guide Anni Jacoby, Cultural Science major, ’22 at the University of Leipzig. We are across the sea equivalents; suburban startups with a taste for travel and a protected view of the real world. Her peers in Leipzig represent a class of German youth attempting to tackle the cutthroat German University system. Here education is free, but admittance is based on merit and brilliance. They live in shockingly cheap shared apartments, all pre-war buildings with high ceilings and winding staircases. I almost cringe at the drawings on the plaster walls and the cigarette smoke that drifts through their red lighted rooms. With the worry of student loans and part (sometimes full) time jobs that burden my peers in Minnesota, I am fascinated by the sense of abandon shared among many young Germans. Those I’ve met place a strong emphasis on aesthetics and trips to Thailand, but also hard work and academic competition.
Why do so many students come to Leipzig, I ask Jacoby… what is so special that the city has to offer?
“Cheap housing is honestly the main reason. Also, because many of the buildings have been restored within the last few years, so the city has a lot of beautiful but affordable places to live.”
It seems to be a combination of the visual and the practical that draws students to Leipzig.
“The city is very bike friendly, and the important spots are relatively close together. There is also a great diversity of alternative culture and a good balance between nature and city with lakes and canals on the outskirts.” Leipzig also has an important communal bend.
“There are lots of young cultural programs, independent exhibitions and galleries, collective projects and group living situations.”
Do any of your friends work in Leipzig?
“One,” says Jacoby after thinking for quite a while. This is surprising to me. If no one works, how do they afford to live?
“They live based on money from their parents and child support from the state.”
Although studying without working is a something few can afford in the US, it is standard procedure here.
“In other cities, a lot of people have to work. However, rent is so cheap, and we don’t have to pay for college in Germany so there is less financial burden.”
On top of dedicating their time primarily to studying, many of Jacoby’s friends and peers have spent extended periods traveling.
“A lot of students do Erasmus…” Erasmus is a program through the European Union that allows students from member countries to spend semesters at universities throughout Europe free of charge.
“All of my friends have spent at least three months to a year abroad; backpacking in southeast Asia and Australia or working as an au pair in Europe.”
Why do you think more young Germans travel than Minnesotans?
“Because of being raised differently. Many families put more emphasis on travel and knowing other cultures. A lot of people I met in Minnesota had rather sheltered perspectives. It’s kind of a cultural thing I feel like.” Many differences are also a coincidence of timeline.
“A lot of people just do gap years. Especially because of the change in the German education system.” Jacoby was one of the first groups of students to graduate in a twelve year rather than a thirteen-year primary and secondary system.
“Because so many people are graduating younger, they’re taking time to figure out what they want and to travel while they’re young. It also has to do with the fact they the economy in Germany is good and there’s fair pay.”
What is the biggest difference between Germans our age and Minnesotans our age?
“[US] Americans go to college right away usually before being exposed to the real world and cultural differences. There is also a big difference when it comes to dependence in general. From what I’ve seen, many [US] American students go straight from home to a sheltered environment at college.
German students usually get their own apartments and don’t live on campus. In that way you have to grow up earlier.” This is just the paradox between German and US college students. While US students may be forced to be more financially independent, their German counterparts often enjoy a facade of social self-reliance.
Jacoby and I share a singular, comparative perspective on the differing lifestyles of European and US American youth. She studied at my high school in suburban Minnesota, and I’ve spent a year of high school in Spain. While many of our peers in the United States are settling down, getting engaged and starting families, my peers in Spain and Jacoby’s peers in Germany are traveling abroad or just moving out of the house for the first time. There are of course exceptions within both extremes, but Leipzig provides an interesting view of the latter set, and how they define themselves as they approach adulthood. However, with the raising price of rent and the impending diversification of the currently sheltered financial bubble, the new Berlin and its student occupants may be in for a wakeup call.