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Young activists shake up politics in ageing Germany

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Berlin (AFP)

Young Germans are making themselves heard with demonstrations over climate change on Friday, marking a passionate engagement with politics not seen since reunification in the fast-ageing nation.

Inspired by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who began going on strike from school on Fridays, thousands of under 21s across Germany have been joining weekly marches rather than sitting in class.

Their sudden engagement has left politicians at a loss as to how to react, observers said, noting that it could yet spark a change in policymaking that has long been dominated by pensioner concerns.

Thunberg will attend Friday's rally in Berlin and the excitement in the run-up to the event was palpable.

"We need all of you for March 29 to be an incredible strike," said organisers of the Berlin demonstration on Twitter.

Jakob Blasel from Kiel already knows he will skip school on Friday even though he is preparing for crucial examinations this year.

"We are frightened for our future," said the 18-year-old, an organiser of climate protests in the city on the Baltic coast.

"We want to bring about change in the political climate," he said, demanding immediate measures such as the closure of coal power plants and more environmentally friendly transport and agriculture policies.

Klaus Hurrelmann of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin noted that such teen activism has not been seen in Europe's biggest economy since reunification in 1990.

"It's very unusual," he told AFP.

- 'Helpless and confused' -

Youth involvement reached a trough during the 2008 financial crisis, but then slowly began to recover as online social networks provided a platform that allows for quick mobilisation.

Their engagement also comes during a sustained period of economic prosperity and low unemployment in Germany.

Analysts believe that Thunberg with her remarkable drive helped spark the change.

"Her stubbornness, her strikes, her preparedness on the climate topic is being copied. In short, Greta is a model," Hurrelmann said.

The determination shown by the younger generation has left politicians "at once helpless and confused," said the professor.

This is particularly the case for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier has urged students not to skip school. "The demonstrations would not be less effective outside class hours," he said.

But the chancellor herself has welcomed their fight -- something that Blasel finds "ridiculous" as "the protests are directed against Angela Merkel and her government which has done nothing to stop the climate crisis."

- Generation battle -

Beyond the climate issue, the return of the youths to the streets is forcing political powers to reckon with them.

With seniors making up the biggest group of voters, critics have long accused political parties of pushing above all policies that favour pensioners.

One in five adults is now over 65, but the trend could be accentuated as more baby boomers leave the labour market in droves.

"The youth lack a clear policy on what our society will look like in 20 or 30 years", and are now taking matters into their own hands, said Horst Opaschowski, who leads a research institute on future trends in Hamburg.

Observers believe that the youth revolt is the result of a yawning generation gap.

"A vote of defiance as clear as has been expressed in the last weeks (with the Friday demonstrations) is unique and should shake up the parties," noted Spiegel news magazine.

At the same time, if the youths and their concerns are taken seriously, that could be an opportunity, said Hurrelmann.

Lowering the voting age to 16 as suggested by the Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's coalition, or imposing a quota for candidates under 30 at the next elections, could encourage young people to join political parties which are seeking rejuvenation, he said.

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