Understanding The German-American Generation Gap

By Stephen Fuchs on Email @StephenWFuchs

Anyone who has been involved in a German-American club or organization has probably heard the question come up on what can be done to get younger members involved. Some find a way to make it happen but most do not. I’m sure we all have our ideas as to what can be done to solve the problem and in all honesty the solution varies from club to club. The purpose of this editorial is not to offer up solutions but to help clarify some of the disconnects between the two generations of German-Americans… the Baby Boomers and Generation X/Y. Once we become clear on what each side is looking for, we can then take the next step to solving the problem.

The Way Things Have Been Done

Not a lot has changed in most German-American organizations since they first formed years ago. After WWII, when some time had passed and it was once again acceptable to publicly show pride in your German heritage, there was a sudden boom in the formation of German clubs all around the United States. People could once again get together to celebrate the customs of the country they immigrated from, or at least traced their ancestry to, and the clubs were growing at a very fast rate. What has changed since then is that those same people have gotten a bit older and the growth has pretty much come to a stop. They are still celebrating the Germany they grew up knowing, but have shown little interest in celebrating the positive changes that have spread through their homeland since the war ended and the wall fell.

There’s no problem celebrating the older traditions of Germany, and the German-American community has done a great job preserving the many customs. Some Germans will even comment that the German-Americans are more German than they are. As a result. some of the Baby Boomers here in the States may see this as something they are proud of, but at the same time see as a responsibility to be the ones that have to keep the old traditions alive.

Welcoming A New Generation

50 plus years have now passed since these German clubs formed and the original founders and members have had children and grandchildren, many of which show little interest in their German heritage. Then there is the new generation of Germans who have made the choice to move to the United States and grew up in a more modern Germany that barely resembles the times celebrated and known by the German-American clubs. What these two groups, from the same generation but different birth countries, share is their desire for modern culture.

This is where the Baby Boomers often miss the point. They believe that the next generation wants nothing to do with the Germany of the past and only want to celebrate the 2012 version of Germany. What the newer generation really wants is a combination of both instead of one or the other.

A Time and Place For It

So now that we established what is wanted by many of the new generation German-Americans, how do we make the necessary changes? It’s important to note that no matter what is done, you won’t be able to please everyone, and there will always be those who only want one or the other. This doesn’t mean that we should hold back due to the fear of negative comments we’ll receive by those afraid of change.

A great place to look for inspiration is Germany itself. German’s have found a way to celebrate their country’s past and have done it across many generation groups at the same time. There are still the clubs that resemble our German clubs in the states, but a majority of the people take the time to honor the traditions during the appropriate times. If you walk down the streets of Germany today, you are not going to see men and women wearing the traditional tracht unless they are on their way to celebrate Oktoberfest. During Oktoberfest season, Germans young and old bust out their traditional, yet slightly updated, clothing and will all enjoy singing the music hits of years past as loud as they can. When Oktoberfest is over, the tracht return to the back of the closet until the appropriate time comes around again. They aren’t ashamed of it, it’s just not meant to be worn at every German celebration.  Yes, there are still times when Germans will still wear something that resembles the traditional clothing of years past, but it has been updated to fit in with the fashion trends of today.

This is something that often catches new German immigrants by surprise when they attend their first German event in the States. They don’t expect to see everyone dressed in their tracht in the middle of summer. Sure, the German-Americans may do it all year to give Americans a taste of the German culture that is often stereotyped, but is that all we want Americans to know about Germany?

Incorporating Change

Now that you have a better understanding of what both generations want, what do you do about it? Like I mentioned earlier, there are many ways to accomplish change and bring in younger members.  This editorial also is not meant to represent 100% of the thoughts from both generation groups. What’s important to note though is that you don’t have to abandon the old to bring in the new. One suggestion for incorporating change is to celebrate the progression of German culture during your events. Start off with the traditional culture of the past and work your way up to the Germany of today as the night goes on. What we can all agree on and celebrate, whether we are a Baby Boomer or find ourselves in Generation X/Y, is the pride we have in our German heritage.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please share your experiences and comments with us. Look at this as not a solution to the problem but the opportunity to begin the important discussion on working together to bring new life into the German-American community.


Photos by xflickrx and Yosef M via flickr

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Stephen Fuchs
Stephen founded German Pulse and LGBT Germany out of a passion to introduce Americans to a Germany that goes beyond beer and polka (although with enough beer he has been known to polka it up a bit). He's a coffee addict, lover of wine and good times, a hit in the kitchen and editor of TV commercials. You can follow him on Twitter (@StephenWFuchs) to find out a lot more.
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