In Depth

Post-communist young have choice -- and stress

WARSAW/PRAGUE (Reuters) - When Vladka Soudkova was nursing her baby in the autumn of 1989, she hoped the upheaval across central Europe she was watching on her television screen would bring freedom and choice to her tiny daughter.

She has not been disappointed.

Eighteen this year, Kristyna has opportunities that Vladka and her computer technician husband, Tomas, could only dream of and the chance to travel and study wherever she likes.

“My husband went out to demonstrate and I sat at home watching the exciting events unfold,” said Vladka, now a 45-year-old office worker in the Czech capital of Prague.

“That’s when we started to hope that our daughters would live in the freedom that we didn’t have. Now we can say our wishes and hopes have been fulfilled.”

But with that freedom and choice have also come insecurity, a race for material possessions and, for young people, a degree of uncertainty over the future that their parents did not know.

In Hungary, young people have turned away from parliamentary politics and taken to the streets. Young people are leaving Poland rather than trying to make a future there.

“Our children have many more options, but that does not necessarily mean they have it easier,” said Vladka.

Kristyna, a student agrees: “I don’t think we are happier than our parents were at the same age.”

The Soudkovas’ views are reflected throughout the central European countries that overthrew the communist system in 1989.

A Reuters survey of young Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who will come of age this year and of their parents shows today’s freedoms are widely appreciated. But many young people are dissatisfied with their own lives and feel alienated from the society their parents fought so hard to build.


Sociologists say the first generation to grow up in central Europe since the collapse of the Berlin Wall tends to be individualistic and is not particularly interested in politics or in engaging in society in the way their parents did.

Hanna Swida-Ziemba, professor of sociology at Warsaw University who has made a study of Polish youth, says many young Poles are not interested in group values such as citizenship, patriotism or loyalty to society.

“What is characteristic is not the goal toward which they are heading, but rather the feeling of uncertainty, even an aversion to the world they are living in,” Swida-Ziemba said.

The most telling evidence of this detachment from the society in which young central Europeans were born has emerged in Poland, where as many as 3 million people, most of them young, have left home and emigrated, many permanently.

A survey conducted in Poland last year showed almost a third of young people would be willing to take advantage of the right to travel to move to a different country to obtain a different life and the material goods they cannot afford at home.

Pawel Zaboklicki, 27, who left his home in Poland to find work in Britain in 2005 but returned a year later, says he and his contemporaries left mainly in search of more money.

“Life is less stressful there. Here you constantly worry about money,” said Zaboklicki.

Central Europe’s young capitalist economies offer endless possibilities and the promise of all the things that money can buy, but young people complain they cannot afford them.


“When I was young, we had money to buy an apartment, but there weren’t any apartments to buy,” says Joanna Lipczynska, 60, from the Polish city of Lodz. “Now there are apartments, but there isn’t the money to buy them.”

Lipczynska’s 24-year-old daughter, Emilia, says her parents’ lives were much more certain when they were her age.

“They had everything served to them on a platter. They didn’t have to fight to find work, to get a livelihood. They had everything planned for them.

“For example, if you finished seamstress school, you knew you would be a seamstress for the rest of your life. Life was more predictable and less stressful.”

But Jola Kruk, 47, from the city of Gdynia on the Polish Baltic coast, says the life of her 21-year-old son, Lukasz, is far richer than hers was at his age and she has gladly given up certainty in return for travel and choice.

“So what if there was a guaranteed salary and job, when the goods being distributed were in such short supply? What’s the pleasure of standing in line for three hours to buy some meat?”

Lukasz is enthused by the possibilities that free enterprise offers but does not necessarily think they offer happiness.

“Today, the only thing one needs is a good idea, a little bit of luck, or hard work, and any one of these factors can lead to very big success,” he said. “On the other hand, if these things are lacking, one can end up much worse off.”

“My parents were happier at my age. Today the huge array of options before us is intimidating.”

Ania Zdrojewska, a 16-year-old teenager from the Polish industrial town of Skierniewice to the west of Warsaw, agrees.

“Now everything is uncertain. If I fail once, I may lose the lot,” she said. “It’s the race for money now.”

Additional reporting by Marynia Kruk, Gabriela Baczynska, Marta Filipiak, Piotr Bujnicki and Chris Johnson in Warsaw and Andras Gergely in Budapest