MAGDEBURG, Germany — Their parents grew up in a Germany divided against itself but on a continent convalescing after unfathomable violence. Their older cousins went to university and started working in the 1990s, a holiday from history as the economy became global and powerful nations mostly got along.
The future looks different to Germans in their late teens and 20s in this medium-size university town, where modern architecture housing mechanical-
engineering labs has been cut into the medieval landscape. They are the Merkel generation: Young people who can scarcely remember a time before Angela Merkel, 63, was their chancellor. After 12 years in power, she is poised to claim a fourth four-year term on Sunday.
Her reelection is likely to come with the support of the youth. Fifty-seven percent of first-time voters, for instance, favor the chancellor, compared with 21 percent who prefer her Social Democratic rival, Martin Schulz, according to polling conducted by the Forsa Institute.
This sets Germany apart from other Western countries where young people identify with the left, flocking to Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who contested the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and Jeremy Corbyn, the liberal firebrand who led Britain's Labour Party to a strong showing in June elections. It also marks a change within Germany, where young voters typically have chosen the Social Democrats, and increasingly the Greens, in the postwar era. The first time Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union captured the largest share of the youth vote without the help of its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union, was in 2013.
If their voting habits are distinctive, that is because their worldview is, as well.
This generation came to political consciousness in the anxious aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but watched their country weather the financial crisis later that decade with relative ease. The European Union is suddenly no longer a given, and the United States, which steered Germany to political normalization, is looking inward under a president who promises "America first."
Students in Magdeburg took comfort in Germany's stability but voiced pessimism about the safety of the world — somewhat the inverse of the perspective with which earlier generations came of age.
"I'm afraid about the future," said Philipp Thiel, 27, who is training to become a teacher at the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg. "I don't expect a third world war but maybe something like that, with North Korea, Turkey, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Trump," he said.
Merkel, he said, is a contrast to bellicose world leaders. "She's someone who will say, 'Okay guys, calm down.' "
For Erik Spieler, an engineering student, the decision is a pragmatic one.
"The Christian Democrats may not be the best possible option, but they're the best at the moment," Spieler said. His father, a teacher, opposes the Social Democrats because of the restructuring they want to pursue in the schools, he said. But for the 18-year-old, the decision is simpler: "We just know Merkel."
Eva Schulz, the host of "Deutschland3000," a video program produced by public broadcasters and distributed on Facebook that aims to explain politics to young people, said much of her audience sees Merkel only for her role on the world stage — her ability to keep Russia in line, her willingness to counter President Trump and, most recently, her appeal for talks with North Korea.
"A feeling that I sometimes sense among our viewers is, 'Could somebody please stop the world for a moment, just so I could try to understand one crisis at a time?' " said Schulz, who is 27 and described 9/11 as the moment "politics started" for her. Her parents, she said, did not worry about terrorism, and they believed they had moved past the brand of politics it breeds — nationalism.
Young people repulsed by nationalist politics admire the chancellor as "the leader of the free world," a title Merkel rejects, while not understanding that "young people are not at all a priority for the Christian Democrats," Schulz said. The party supports more-modest taxes for the wealthy than those favored by the Social Democrats. It does not emphasize the environment as vehemently as the Greens. And many of its members, including Merkel, opposed a recent vote legalizing same-sex marriage.
But in traveling across the country to prepare for the show, Schulz said, she heard one view repeatedly: "We are doing fine as a generation." Germany boasts the lowest youth unemployment rate, 6.5 percent, of any E.U. country. Quibbles, Schulz said, are dismissed as "Luxusprobleme," best translated as "First World problems."
But this idea — almost a sense of gratitude — may be dissuading young people from getting more involved in politics, Schulz warned. Only six lawmakers in the Bundestag, the 630-member lower house of Parliament, were born after 1985.
Germany overall is a rapidly aging society. Just 15.4 percent of eligible voters are between the ages of 18 and 30, compared with 20 percent who are between 50 and 60. Older people are also more likely to go to the polls.
Wolfgang Gründinger, author of the book "Old Geezers' Politics," said Germany's older generations "are robbing the youth of their future," pointing to the lack of attention to education and child poverty in this month's electoral debate.
Although Gründinger is an active member of the Social Democratic Party, he does not spare it blame. "Fewer than 3 percent of SPD members are younger than 25, which means that the lives of younger people play virtually no role in the everyday debate,"
said Gründinger, referring to the party.
Paul Ziemiak, a 32-year-old candidate for Parliament and president of the youth organization affiliated with Merkel's center-right bloc, is trying to bring younger blood into the government. Among his aims, he said, is to enjoin young people — for whom the country's embrace of nationalism feels far in the past — to oppose Alternative for Germany, a nationalist, anti-
immigrant party that could be the third-largest faction in the Bundestag after Sunday's vote.
"The last century shows what can happen when it's only about national interests, but for our generation, it's not as fresh," Ziemiak said.
Young voters are in the peculiar position of knowing only one chancellor. The generation that follows them may be the first since "denazification" to come of age with a far-right party present in the Bundestag.
Noack reported from Berlin. Alexandra Rojkov contributed to this report.