“Money,” my friend said, looking up from her glass and smiling provocatively. “But no one admits that.”
“Money has no value,” I objected.
“Fine,” she said, “but you know what I mean.” She leaned back in her plastic chair until it cracked. Then she crossed her arms.
“A good life. A life made easier by wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?”
We sat across from each other in the shade of a cafe in the early evening. It would never have occurred to me to describe wealth as one of my values, so self-evident our privilege, the time to reflect on it, so deeply rooted the post-materialist gesture. I thought of Lena, the young trainee in Halle, who had told me that property didn’t mean anything to her, but that she imagined a family life with a little house and children for the future, without too much fuss.
For weeks I had been asking people all over Germany, young and old, wealthy and less well-off, entrepreneurs and creative people, about their personal values. I hadn’t heard an answer twice.
What we want from each other
At first, most of them didn’t even answer. Rather, they had asked questions. They wanted to know exactly what was meant. Because how often do you think about your values? Values initially seemed to some like something outdated, the term smelled of kitchen, children, church. Dreams, expectations and visions could be talked about at length, mistakes and losses and the willingness to learn from them. Values were static, they sounded like yesterday. And who wanted to talk about abstract guidelines that you set yourself and then have in common with thousands of others?
Values reveal what a person desires from society and the immediate environment in which they live. Anyone who speaks of tolerance and solidarity longs for their fellow human beings to take care of one another and stand up for one another. Anyone who makes morality their yardstick may have noticed a deficit in the moral behavior of others around them compared to their own expectations.
That doesn’t sound all that strange even today
When social circumstances change, when war is being waged somewhere and the future suddenly and unexpectedly seems endangered, most people’s perspectives automatically shift and personal priorities are set differently.
Of course, talking about values with a dozen people is anything but representative. The values of a person who has a large part of his life behind him are fundamentally different from those of an adolescent. Someone who lives in a small town in the east has different expectations of life than someone who owns a kiosk in a big city in the west. And yet, at a moment when notions of attitude, good and evil, decency and responsibility are being rearranged, these conversations reveal something about our exceptional time.
When I wanted to talk to him about his personal values (security, solidarity), the sociologist Stefan Mauritz from Cologne brought up the concept of changing values. He recalled the American political scientist R. Inglehart, in whose analyzes post-materialism was to replace the materialism that still prevailed. He confirmed Inglehart’s thesis for his urban friends, who were on average 30 years old and who celebrated participation and free development. Then he became thoughtful, spoke of the change he also felt in his environment, a retreat into private life, and cautiously wondered what the pandemic and Putin were doing to our understanding of self-realization, personal freedom and prosperity.
Of course, there was also the question of what had changed, not least because of the current crises. I thought of my sociology professor in Mainz. As early as 2002, Stefan Hradil predicted a downward “change in values” after the carefree nineties. In 2002 and 2010, the Shell youth studies posed the question of value orientation. In the first study, young people between the ages of 12 and 25 stated that they value good friends, a partner they can trust and a good family life. By 2010, each of these values had become even more important. But the expectation of independence and a life to enjoy had also increased. The desire for stability and personal achievement combined with the expectation of a “good life”, as my girlfriend called it. That doesn’t sound all that strange even today.