Essay Thomas Ziehe

Contemporary Crises of Meaning and Action in Youth

Thomas Ziehe, Leibniz universität, Hannover

Changing experiences in late modern society

Contingency increase and destructuring of living environments

There is a far-reaching atmospheric shift in our everyday life, which you could call an increase in contingency. This refers to a state of reality where most things from our realm of experience do not necessarily have to be as they are. In modern societies, nothing is completely certain or set in stone anymore. But you could still always "see everything in another way as well". Individuals have been released from being bound to pre-defined biographical roadmaps in a quasi-obligatory manner. Openness has emerged in the living environment, but also opaqueness; more choices, but also social disembedding.

For the current young generation, this means growing up from the start in an everyday environment with a less fixed structure. Today's young people are in other words children of cultural destructuring. This is clearly a different socialization context than that of the youth generation of the seventies and eighties. The young generation at that time reacted in their lifestyles to cultural overstructuring. They were still bound to obligatory values of duty and adaptation, against which they rebelled on a large and small scale and from which they freed themselves. Now, on the contrary, the living forms of young people are increasingly about learning to live with the widespread destructuring and compensating for them. They react to the destructuring with their own counter-needs – with needs for stability, certainty and a sense of belonging in their living environments. Individuals create systems of rules and structures, which are supposed to free them from contingency and ensure clarity.

Here is a brief example of this: I was recently at a Danish boarding school where the students are exclusively 15 and 16 years old. It seems like they attend this school for an interim period, and do not decide until afterwards what educational path they want to embark on. I was shown a large bulletin board in the cafeteria with the passport photos of all the students on it. Either one, two or three red dots were attached under each photo, which each student put there themselves. One red dot means "no steady relationship", two dots stand for "steady relationship back home" and three dots for "steady relationship here at the boarding school". That makes things very clear. And this practically enables students to avoid unnecessary energy spent on trying to initiate a relationship. This is what I mean by counter-needs for stability and clarity. I don't presume that a quasi-public billboard method like this would have gone down well in the 70s and 80s...


"Individualization" does not mean being alone or maintaining a single existence. On the contrary, individualization refers to a change in the relationship between the individual and society. There is a cultural process of transformation responsible for this, from an everyday-life governed by norms to a preference-oriented everyday life. I don't mean this in a luxurious sense, such as that you could pick out everything you want in life and would also get it. Preference orientation here solely means orienting yourself to your own preferences, but also your own aversions. It involves being able to either pursue your own preferences or your own aversions in as many everyday situations as possible. Everyday life then prepares situations where choices are constantly sorted into for or against, where your own needs compass is tuned into preferences and aversions. You can thus conceive of individualization as an inner personal filter which "determines" what social expectations and rules a person subscribes to or does not subscribe to. I would add in this context that youth in the adolescence phase are more often tuned into defensive aversions than positive preferences.

Being oriented to their own preferences enables youth to build up their mental self-worlds (Eigenwelt). Such self-worlds are not defined as a location, but rather as a mental construction that encompasses everything that seems familiar, reasonable and ego-close – in other words, "his or her thing". The self-world thus serves as a corridor of relevance, a pre-sorting of everything that seems subjectively desirable and attractive. On the other hand, that which is mentally located outside of this corridor seems strange, inaccessible, and meaningless.

Such mental self-worlds have of course also existed for earlier youth generations. But these were more small niches, which had to constantly be secured from the impositions of the adult world. The self-worlds were previously small islands, and the adult world served as the dominant continent. Now – from the subjective perspective of the youth – the self-world is the continent and the other areas of the living environment are more like distant islands. This is without a doubt a gain in liberalization for today's youth, to be able to orient themselves to their respective self-world to such a great extent. But this subjective gain also has its price: Everything that is not compatible with the self-world now seems extraordinarily strange and subject to doubt. The symbolic terrain outside of the self-world is perceived as fairly ego-distant. In weather report jargon, you could say: The "perceived unfamiliarity" (outside of one's own corridor of relevance) is increasing.

In a TV quiz show, the participant, a young man in his twenties, got the following question: What year was the Deutschmark introduced? He pondered over the answers to choose from and guessed wrong. And then said: "I have no way of knowing that, that was before my time." And he said this sentence as if it were very obvious. During the course of the programme, it turned out that a few more things were "before his time".

In the context of preference-oriented everyday life and subjective dominance of the self-world, forms of life turn into an individual's own, private matter (as long as they obey the law). This is a major shift when you consider what facets of life there used to be extremely bitter confrontations with parents over (e.g. hair style and clothing). Now there is greater scope for choices and decisions, but also a higher risk of not being able to cope with this process of self-discovery. The youth's peer group serves as an assessment centre. "Popular" development progress on the everyday level is assessed here and symbolic awards are awarded or stripped. Success in the eyes of others becomes the most important currency for one's self-esteem. Young people are extremely concerned with their own development and group recognition. This increases their need for advice about their living environment, it would be the end of the world to be caught doing something embarrassing or behaving the wrong way.

German youth magazine Bravo caters to this need with the help of the popular reader's letters column. Basically anything can be addressed here. The concern about one's development is clearly front and centre in the questions posed by the letters. Tommy, 15, wrote a letter asking the editorial board for the following advice: "My first date is coming up. Please tell me all the things I need to do for it to be a success. What can I talk about with her or what should we do?" Bravo's sister magazine, Bravo Girl, has attached a "flirt line booklet" for their young female readers in a small format so that they can carry it with them comfortably. The motto of the editorial board is: "Your initial flirt contact is guaranteed to be successful with our 100 amazing lines!"

The preference being catered to here is geared toward some type of knowledge akin to a living environment navigation system, which promises to deliver the most concrete "life usefulness". It's about providing for certainty in behaviour – in front of others.

Risky dispositions

Daily ongoing self-observation

Modern individuals have the ability to “turn on their interior lighting"[1]. We are not only participants in an extensive depiction of the outside world, but also a depiction and thematization of our physical inner world (Innenwelt). This enhances the process of self-perception and self-problematization. The mental realm is no longer an arcane realm for professional specialists. On the contrary, it has been a topic and focus of attention in completely normal everyday life for a long time. Today's children and youth grow up in an ubiquitous living environment of self-thematization and inevitably embrace it. This peculiarly trivialized introspection serves to secure one's self-image, but it can also bring about captivity in self-images. A troubled twelve-year old girl said to her therapist at the end of her first session, effectively summarizing her case: "There you see – no upbringing!"

Susceptibility to shame and need for self-esteem

The great concern over one's identity has already been a topic of discussion. There is a higher level of expectation associated with securing a fairly bearable perception of normality of oneself in today's everyday life than for earlier youth generations. It is no longer enough to demonstrate sufficient conventionality and ability to fit in. These days, you have to "have more to offer". Many individuals build high-flying immature perceptions of their own greatness and simultaneously have a damaged, fragile self-esteem. In these cases, an affect situation of inadequacy and "inner unhappiness"[2] is dominant intrapsychically. Getting used to daily ongoing self-observation does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with greater self-control. It also makes those affected susceptible to feelings of shame (in contrast to the "old" feeling of guilt). The guilt-related conflict with the cultural "law" of good and bad, commandment and sin, is not what is at the centre of the suffering. Instead, it is the highly sensitive fear of embarrassing experiences and fiasco experiences. A 15-year old, asked by his uncle whether he has an umbrella with him, responds appalled: "An umbrella? – What am I, gay?!"

Will problems and action inhibition

When everyday life only exhibits a few reliable, supportive outer structures, it is subjectively more difficult to build up one's own inner structures. The "ego-household" (Ich-Haushalt) then exhibits signs of a substructure. The inner regulatory mechanisms are undeveloped, and a problem of the will emerges (in contrast to mere preferences). Indecisiveness, inability to commit, postponement and quitting are the result. The individual's self-concept is then illusionary: "If I really wanted to, then I could do it, but I don't really want to yet at all." In reality however, the prospect of self-control is getting weaker and weaker. A chronic truant, 14, says to the social worker: "I can't overcome myself."

The common core of these risky dispositions is a weak ego-demarcation (low self-reliance) and reliance on more symbiotic object relationships. An Immature form of ego-demarcation and symbiotic preferences for psychological fusions are dichotomously juxtaposed. Refuse or merge, cling on or avert.

Risky self-worlds

Group and relationship

Group contexts serve as a mirror for one's own self-assessment. The old identity question is "Who am I?", the new identity question is" With whom do I belong?" The group becomes a reputation exchange, which shows the share performance for each person's recognition and popularity. Being on your own is becoming more rare as an everyday experience.

In their two-person relationship, partners demand an extremely high density of rules. Fear of being cheated on and rapidly piercing jealousy are held in check by daily surveillance mechanisms, with a sweeping control function attributed to mobile phones. The internal pressure in such fused two-way relationships is substantial, and it leads to excessive demands, fights and painful break-ups.

The risky dispositions (self-observation, shame, addiction structure, will problems) intertwine with the risky self-worlds (Internet/media and group/relationship). They together form a loop of fusion needs and offers to merge. Significant counter-identification and ego-strength would be needed to be able to distance oneself from this (at least every now and then).

The Internet and other media

Going online has become extremely attractive. The characteristic artificiality of the digital world has captivated a type of fascination, in the face of which real world face-to-face communication is felt to be too limited, uneventful and disappointing. Diving into the infinity of digital space can feel like an ecstatic ego-expansion (although you in real life are spending all your time in the basement). The Internet enables individuals to participate in their self-world and their entire network of relationships via their mobile phone, iPod or laptop.

Private TV channels offer non-stop depiction of relationship and life dramas via reality TV shows and other formats with shouting, fighting and nudity. World perception becomes radically privatized thematically and socially. Some pop sectors (e.g. hiphop or casting shows) attract people with fantastic stories of greatness: from a poor everyday life to glamorous star. The ambivalence of early fame and media humiliation and failure offer a lot of symbolic material for claims of omnipotence and revenge projection.

Recently, the most popular game in many German kindergartens was "pretend to be Bohlen" (Bohlen is a member of the jury in the German version of Idol). One kid is on "stage" and performs something for the others, but purposefully does it very bad. And then the others passionately tear it apart.

The Internet and mainstream pop culture intertwine with one another. They become a daily environment in the full meaning of the word, the "cultural home" (the term "hobby" is surely no longer sufficient here). The "real" social world is downgraded to (only) one world among others. In extreme cases, there is a virtual disconnect from reality.

Experience and learning steps in school

Difference from everyday life

School and other educational institutions should provide two characteristics, among others: They should serve as a well-structured and supportive frame of interaction. And they should work using an experienceable difference from the private living routine of young people to be able to expose these youth to dosed crises as well. Both go hand in hand: Because being able to handle exposure to crises simultaneously requires a supportive frame.


The term setting is used in therapeutic and socio-pedagogical contexts to refer to the entirety of the rules and agreements that define and govern the standard situation of the working relationship in a field of action. The rules of the setting lay out requirements and prohibitions, but also carry common definitions of normality, goal agreements and allocation of meaning. A setting thus also has protective, meaning-generating and expressive effects, not just a procedural meaning. A setting may contain protective rituals for the recognition of formal and personal differences between the people participating. A setting can secure specific applications of rules at various locations and make them experienceable (such as the difference between public and private). And it may contain ego-supporting boundaries and thus help in self-relaxation, rule compliance and ambivalence relief.

Dense structures cannot remove the burden of being in public, but can make it more bearable. In any case, the establishment and appreciative attention of settings would be a type of counter-attention, which could without a doubt soften the diffusioning consequences of the mentioned subjectivization and informalization.

Concurrence of weaknesses in decision-making and sharpened self-observation can lead to the bad result of getting stuck in one's own self-definitions. The "don't feel like it" catchword then instantly becomes ubiquitous. Easing of such paralysing self-descriptions presupposes taking on a distance to the immediate given affects and wishfully making ourselves the topic. We can develop will ideals in this way, i.e. perceptions of how our own will could look. As mentioned, the path here lies in the ability to achieve inner distance or better: to achieve an imagination that impels me to "try out inner possibilities." It also involves improving one's inner ability to communicate; this in turn could be linked to the possibilities of the ability to symbolize – that is to say, if we learn to find a medium of articulation for the evaluative determination of our wishes, whether words or images.

I can thus change my will ideal by easing my habitual self-definitions, that is to say, change my ideal perceptions of what relationship to my "will" I want to build. I suspect that a moment of narcissistic idealization is indispensable for this. I call this the "affective future perfect" and the following is what I mean: To be able to make a wish come true in the long term, e.g. learning to play the guitar, I need the power to set sufficient intermediate goals that I can achieve. This power is however in an internal relationship with the imaginative ability to be able to create an image for myself of how good it will feel when I "will have learned" to play the guitar (future perfect). The anticipation of such conditions of pride and self-enjoyment is nothing other than the ability to be experience anticipatory pleasure in a manner that is both intense and sufficiently resistant to intermediate frustrations. I believe that there is a close connection between needs for pride, stable anticipatory pleasure and the extension of ego-possibilities. The expansion of ego-possibilities is however nothing other than an extension of one's own horizon of motivation: One becomes more imaginative concerning how and what one is able to "will".

Inner automation

Conceptionally, I consider it important to maintain a terminological difference between primary and secondary socialization. From a normative perspective, secondary socialization (also) includes the development task of gradually disassembling the egocentricity of childhood and gradually achieving a distance to outer circumstances and inner reality. Jürgen Habermas calls this "putting yourself outside" (Sich-Herausversetzen)[3] and refers to an autonomy with respect to the outer and inner reality. The point of view of inward autonomy is now sometimes hidden by the goal of total self-stabilization. The ego-development in the secondary socialization phase also facilities self-stabilization – but not only that.

It involves ego-identification, ego-demarcation and self-distance. Ego-identification refers to mature goodwill to oneself (the British call this being nice to yourself). Ego-demarcation refers to building up subject/object differentiation and bearing (non-fused) independence. Finally, self-distance means no longer being merely at the whim of your own dispositions and aversions. Instead, you are able to form an opinion on your own preferences. In the sense of triangularization, it involves changing perspective to yourself, and a reference to a "third party" outside of dyadic fusions (e.g. passion for an object, for some content).


EHRENBERG, A. (2004). Das erschöpfte Selbst. Depression und Gesellschaft in der Gegenwart. [[The Depleted Self. Contemporary Depression and Society] Frankfurt/New York: Campus.

ENZENSBERGER, H.M. (1993). Aussichten auf den Bürgerkrieg. [Prospects of the Civil War] Frankfurt am Main Suhrkamp 1993.

HABERMAS, J. (1988). Individuierung durch Vergesellschaftung. In Nachmetaphsisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze. [Individualization via Socialization. On Post-Metaphystical Thinking. Philosophical Essays.] Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

LUHMANN, N. (1987). Die gesellschaftliche Differenzierung und das Individuum. [Societal Differentiation and the Individual] In T. OLK & H.-U. OTTO (Editor), Soziale Dienste im Wandel 1. [Changing Social Services I.] Neuwied/Darmstadt: Luchterhand 1987.


[1] Luhmann (1987), p. 128.

[2] Ehrenberg (2004), p. 151.

[3] Habermas (1988), p. 224.

Unge i dag ved ikke, hvad det vil sige at være venner. De sidder alene foran skærmene hjemme på værelserne og har ingen værdifulde sociale relationer. På overfladisk vis forsøger de at iscenesætte sig selv så positivt som muligt på sociale medier som Facebook. De deler skamløst alt og har ingen forståelse for privatlivets fred. Sådan opfatter mange nutidens teenagere, som er den del af befolkningen, der er kraftigst repræsenteret på sociale netværkssider.

Men faktisk bruger unge de sociale medier noget mere nuanceret end som så. Facebook indgår eksempelvis som en sofistikeret del af det at praktisere ungdom, vedligeholde venskaber og konstruere identitet.

Det er vigtigt at understrege, at teenagere ikke er en homogen gruppe, som har samme praksisser, bare fordi de er født inden for samme årrække. De er lige så forskellige som os voksne facebook-brugere. Nogle deler meget; andre lidt; nogle har mange venner på deres vennelister, andre få; nogle er meget kritiske over for sociale medier, andre har taget dem betingelsesløst til sig. Nogle dyrker selviscenesættelsen, mens andre bare logger ind for at hænge ud og dyrke de sociale relationer. Nogle kommunikerer kun med folk, de kender, mens andre har stor glæde af at indgå i nye relationer og finde netvenner, som de måske aldrig ser ansigt til ansigt, men som i høj grad opfattes som værdifulde.

Så selv om de fleste danske teenagere (mindst 90 pct.) er til stede på den sociale netværksside Facebook, er der ikke nødvendigvis tale om en ensartet gruppering af unge mennesker.

Fælles identitetsdannelse

Hvis man så alligevel skal forsøge at sige noget generelt om de unges brug af sociale netværkssider, kan man fremhæve, at identitetsdannelsen i høj grad er et fælles, socialt projekt for brugerne. I løbet af de otte år, jeg har fulgt og forsket i danske teenageres brug af sociale netværkssider, har jeg hæftet mig ved, hvor meget unge skriver om og afbilder hinanden. Det indhold, de publicerer, handler ofte om vennerne; hvor sjovt man har det sammen, hvor meget man elsker hinanden, hvor smukke og dejlige vennerne er. Frem for at iscenesætte sig selv, iscenesætter man hinanden.

»Åeha skaat<333 du bare så smuuk: ’D<33 Jeg elsker dig af hele mit hjerte og du er virkelig noget helt specielt <333,« lyder det eksempelvis fra en ung bruger til en anden. Det er et ubevidst, gensidigt bytteforhold, hvor den gangbare valuta er ros. Som en 15-årig respondent sagde engang: »Jeg skriver ikke selv, jeg er smuk.« I stedet lader man vennerne om at vise eller fortælle det.

Statusopdateringer handler i høj grad om det samvær, man har offline og den indholdsmæssige kvalitet af venskaberne. På den måde indgår de unge brugere i hinandens selvfremstilling, og det at have et netværk af værdifulde relationer bliver en vigtig del af selvforståelsen og identitetskonstruktionen.

Det betyder generelt meget for unge at modtage eller læse kærlige beskeder om dem selv på vennernes profiler. »Så ved jeg, at der er nogen, der kan lide mig,« forklarede en 14-årig respondent om beskeden »Jeg elsker dig, og jeg holder bare så meget af dig«, som hendes bedste veninde havde skrevet.

Når unge skriver »Jeg elsker dig« eller »Du er smuk« på tværs af hinandens profiler, er der tale om en måde at bekræfte og blive bekræftet på, som kan være en vigtig del af socialiseringsprocessen som ung.

Den tyske ungdomssociolog Thomas Ziehe taler om, at unge tilstræber intimitet og at have så tætte sociale forhold som muligt, hvilket skal ses i lyset af en søgen efter nærhed og individualisering i ungdomsårene. Når de unge bruger vendinger som ’Jeg elsker dig’, er det en måde at udtrykke sig autentisk på, og det er ifølge Ziehe netop med til at skabe individualisering og en følelse af selvtillid.

Men der skal være indhold bag ordene, billederne og opdateringerne. Det er ikke fedt af have flere hundrede venner på Facebook, hvis man risikerer at blive stemplet som vennejæger (en, der ansøger tilfældige personer om venskab blot for at kunne fremvise et stort netværk). Ligeledes opponerer mange imod en tom kærlighedsdiskurs. Det må ikke blive overfladisk; man skal mene det, hvis man skriver ’Jeg elsker dig’, hvilket gør sådanne beskeder ekstra værdifulde. Profilen skal afspejle, at de nære relationer er autentiske.

Det private offentliggøres

Indimellem støder man på unge, som strategisk anvender beskeder, de har modtaget fra deres nære venner. Eksempelvis sker det, at en profilejer sletter lidt kedelige eller indholdsløse beskeder og efterlader positive kærlighedserklæringer fra vennerne til offentligt skue. Der findes unge, som uploader screenshots af søde beskeder, de har modtaget, så de kan læses af flere end blot afsender og modtager. Således bliver vennernes beskeder en del af den enkelte brugers egen selvfremstilling, og kærlighedserklæringer er med til at tegne et flatterende billede af profilejeren. At vennerne står som afsendere af det budskab, der kommunikeres, er med til at verificere integriteten og sikrer, at den enkelte bruger ikke bliver opfattet som selvfed. Derfor skal rosende, kærlige og til tider intime beskeder ikke gemmes væk i private chatudvekslinger, sms-beskeder eller klassiske vennebøger. De skal være tilgængelige ude i det offentlige rum: »Det er dejligt at vide, hvad en anden synes om en, og dejligt at han skriver det offentligt, så andre kan se, hvor glad han er for mig :D,« skriver en ung respondent eksempelvis. Det betyder ikke, at unge ikke har nogen fornemmelse for privatliv. Det handler blot om, at de har en anden opfattelse af, hvad der hører privatlives fred til. Nogle ting giver mening af dele – i en bestemt kontekst, på et bestemt tidspunkt, med et bestemt publikum for øje.

De unges adfærd viser, hvordan socialitet og identitet fungerer i netværkssamfundet.

Tilgængelig kildekode

Når unge på sociale netværkssider er medkonstruktører af hinandens identitet, peger det på dobbelttydigheden i begrebet ’netværksindividualisme’: At sociale aktører på den ene side gennemgår en forstærket personalisering og individualisering, imens de på den anden side bliver mere og mere forbundne til og gensidigt afhængige af hinanden. Man kan argumentere for, at unge på sociale netværkssider udvikler en slags open source-netværksidentitet. Betegnelsen open source bruges ofte inden for software-udvikling om åben kode, som alle andre kan videreudvikle. På sociale netværkssider bliver identitetsarbejdet i høj grad et fælles projekt, og den kollaborative fremvisning af identitet eller identitet-gennem-social-interaktion bliver synlig, forstærket og til tider bevidst brugt af de unge. Unge er godt klar over, hvad de sætter på spil ved at lade ’kildekoden’ være tilgængelig. Som en 12-årig dreng skrev om en negativ kommentar, han havde fået på et billede af sig selv: Jeg har »jo ligesom selv sat billedet ind og dermed selv bedt om at få det kommenteret«. En open source-netværksidentitet er ikke én, man kan være 100 pct. herre over. Derfor er gode forbindelser til nære venner og offentlige, positive tilkendegivelser vigtige elementer i unges identitetsdannelse på nettet i dag.

Malene Charlotte Larsen er ph.d. og adjunkt på Aalborg Universitet og forsker i unges brug af sociale medier

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