Living in Berlin

You’re Relevant, Just Because You Live in Berlin

photo by Joseph Pearson. Copyrighted.
photo by Joseph Pearson. Copyrighted.

Dear Lost Soul,

I have this theory that Berlin is so popular with the superfluous generation of young people because you can be relevant just by living here.

Why superfluous? Imagine the predicament of today’s 24-year olds, recently out of undergraduate or fine art degrees. They are economically superfluous (overeducated, unemployed, without the necessary work experience, often living in countries with depressed economies, smothered by the ideology of austerity). They are socially superfluous (rationing nights out because they are flat broke; they are perhaps forced still to live at home, to be infantilised by parents who limit explorations, who blame their stay-at-home adults as the architects of their own disenfranchisement). They are, finally, virtually superfluous (because, when you are reduced, you begin to live in another world, and that’s online).

Is the following familiar? Wrapped in a blanket, insulated by headphones, in a corner of the house where the parents just maybe stop harping you, you fashion alternative identities for yourself. Those identities follow you on your mobile phone (that one necessary expense) as soon as you leave the suburban apartment. Those profile pictures––your Whatsapp or Twitter icon, your Facebook profile, your Tindr pic––of yourself grinning ridiculously, or in a contorted ironic pose, are brave assertions of existence, of relevance. But can you think of a less affirming place for a fragile identity than being online, given that so many other identities there are crying out: ‘listen to me’?

Welcome to Berlin, where everyone back home will believe you are having real experiences. Choose either/or among the following options:

1. Parents on Italian bureaucrat pensions discussing over calamari what their children are doing in life. Either “My son is unemployed, living at home, masturbating secretly while playing video games” OR “My son is an artist in… [dramatic pause] Berlin”. The latter option may well mean: “My tatooed son is being pissed on right now in a darkroom under Berghain”, but neither the parents nor the neighbours are likely to be alerted to that likelihood. The fact remains that parental social ethos actually increases when children are swallowed up by Europe’s art capital. It might even be worth sacrificing a seafood dinner now and again to sponsor their misadventures.

2. Your superfluous Facebook status either reads “This video of a cat playing random cluster of notes on the piano is adorable” (because a Saturday night in Andalucia isn’t what it used to be) or “Personal Cockring Sizing & Assistance, With A Smile” (Thanks Stefan!… just another random Monday in Berlin). Your friends will soon wonder what you did with all those collared shirts Mom used to iron for you, when they see you regularly posing in your new Antifa vest and rubber boots.

3. In fact, you have the opportunity suddenly to be worth something on Facebook without doing anything at all except change your current city. Either it reads Colchester, Chelmsford, Castlebar, Clermond-Ferrand, Crotone, Calahorra, Coburg, or it reads: fucking Berlin-Mitte (or, more likely, Berlin-Treptow). The moment your status changes, that magic moment indicating “Mike Murphy Just Changed his Hometown to Berlin”, you need not do anything else in your life. You have arrived. No one will ever care what you claim as “currently employed at…” in your About section. Because simply being in Berlin you will have become relevant.

And if you follow this logic relentlessly, suddenly all sorts of perplexing reasons for moving to this city become understandable. Overheard regularly: “Honestly I don’t care what I do here, I just really needed to live somewhere cool. I was tired of living somewhere boring”. This is code for: “I know somewhere deep inside myself that I am boring, but if I am in Berlin people won’t think that’s the case”. Or, more generously, “I have no idea what to do with my life, but the thing I do know is that I am actually really fucking bored in Cork. Get me the hell out of here!” The number of people who move to Berlin without work, just because it’s “cool”,  is astonishing. People come here for the name, they come here because they don’t want to end up washed-up in a washed-up time. And never before, in the history of technology, has it been possible to let so many people know that you’re cool.

The other side of the coin is the following: that behind the vanity, insecurity, fragile efforts at self-affirmation, that encourage so many Berlin moves, that legitimise so many creative endeavours suddenly “made in Berlin”, is the reality that there is undoubtably more going on here than elsewhere.

Young people can suddenly afford the beer, the rent (sure it’s risen and you have to share these days, but we’re not in London), and the party. They are suddenly in a place where the average age has plummeted by a decade, and there’s the opportunity to release all that energy that was pent-up in the parental periphery. People complain Berlin is becoming like other European cities, but the spike in tourism and start ups means that your Spanish graduate might even get a job, and, with the rapid internationalisation, find food that is as good as at home.

Let’s just call it an “after-effect” of a rash choice, one originating in what is essentially a cry for help. The unexpected consequence of the vanity, the quest to be ‘relevant’ despite our everyday absurdities,  is that you might ultimately be happy here.

Much love,


(wrapped in a blanket, wearing headphones, watching cat videos, wondering if he’s relevant, and in… Berlin)

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

4 thoughts on “You’re Relevant, Just Because You Live in Berlin

  • …or they just came here to experience something new. That’s what being 24 is all about.

  • That seriously speaks from my heart and soul. I have been living in berlin for 8 months now and totally can relate!

  • Those are pretty sharp observations, but here is a question for you: what happens when this ignored & superfluous deluge of 20-something’s, devoid of real hands-on life experience (even that of flipping burgers) inundate the empty seabed of Berlin looking for experience? They all just end up feeding one another’s insular, fantastical and hyper-commercial notions of what “real life” should be, warping the local culture into something that is superficial and ineffectual. Berlin presents a stifling homogeny of youthful inexperience that blots out any input by older people like myself, who have cut their teeth in a more organic and integrated society than this one.

    Honestly, sometimes Berlin makes me afraid for the future of the Western world. I learned so much from older people myself when I was in my 20s: people I met through jobs, house shares community events, local business’s. but in Berlin, all those fields are overrun by 20 year old interns and trustafarians who all seem to think that life is about figuring out how to have their way 100% of the time, and get rich doing it. Who is going to help them realize that this isn’t how great things are really accomplished- that cooperation and putting your needs second to a collective aim can help a person learn & achieve so much more?

    I’ve been in their shoes before, but I was guided away from the commercial notion of success by watching older people who were doing the cool shit that I wanted to do. I learned from their example, basically. In your 20s you are still a work in progress and your perspective can always benefit from being opened further. But there just isn’t anything that inspires younger people to think like that, in Berlin. It’s a dictatorship of instant gratification.

    advertising is to blame for persuading young people that following their dreams at any cost, without question, is the right goal to have. The truth is way more complicated than that – many people here seem to be following a fantasy is instead. But who’s gonna warn them that they’re making a mistake when that mistake is making so much money for Berlin?

    Really, it’s like the blind leading the blind.

  • I wanted to add that, when they do stumble onto the right combination of commitment, cooperation and idealistic vision, the 20 somethings here are inspiring… But overall, it is difficult to witness how many good opportunities are lost, even though the odd one works out. Working together with older and younger groups, these idealistic and educated people could change the world. But they’re too focused on their own navels to look around and realize the potential they have.

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