In the letter above a young girl imagines herself to be a happily married woman with one or two children by the time she is 39. "Hopefully they are intelligent and have an interesting life ahead of them," she continues. She hopes for advancement in technology ("perhaps there will be cars that a small boy today could not even imagine") and she dreams of travelling abroad ("perhaps every citizen of the GDR can travel to any country in the world").
"Perhaps someone from my year will own a big hotel in New York and another one will have his own company. I can see myself sitting at a large table, working as a secretary to a multimillionaire. My husband will also own a big car company and will pick me up from work every day on his Beetle. We'll have a large house, and every year we'll go to Brazil on holiday. In winter we'll go to the mountains."
On a label next to the essay the exhibition organisers commented on young ambitions influenced by the restrictions imposed by the GDR regime: "They wanted to drive Beetles and travel to the West." True, but perhaps those essays were more reflective of the 1980s than they were of the political state the authors had lived in.
In 1985 it was not uncommon for a 15-year-old girl in Germany, Britain, France or the US to dream of being happily married, having children, living in a big house and having a fashionable family car. It is sad to read an essay where a 15-year-old girl limits her ambitions to being a secretary to a multimillionaire, her classmate, perhaps. She does not have professional aspirations beyond that, and a socialist state has nothing to do with that. On the contrary, the communists have done plenty for female empowerment.
Today we live in a different age with our ambitions reaching far and beyond having a nice marriage and a car. With our parents' generation looking at work with a 'grin and bear' attitude, we are now seeking meaning and fulfilment in addition to financial compensation. A previously unprecedented number of young professionals look for jobs in the charity, NGO, social enterprises in the UK and the US. Large corporations are no longer the magnets they used to be because such values as "stability" are being replaced in the pecking order by "adventure". No wonder that our parents are finding it so hard to understand us, when we leave 'sensible' jobs in pursuit of a different lifestyle where the boundaries of "work" and "recreation" are deliberately blurred.
A friend asked me for advice on whether to go for a job he was interviewing for. I told him to write down everything that was important to him in a job, including money, status, intellectual stimulation, perks, fit within a team, personal fulfilment, meaning etc. The next step is to rank these values, bearing in mind that the pecking order may very well have changed over time. What was important to you when you were in your 20s may be less important in your 30s or 40s or 50s. What are the top priorities for you now? Does the new job prospect address them?
An ambition is a dynamic beast (ambitio is Latin for "going around or about"), which tends to pace around the cage if you don't let it out. I'd like to think that a 45-year-old woman who had shared her ambitions with us so openly back in 1985 has new aspirations today. I'd like to think that she has her own much sought after graphic design agency, and that apart from Brazil she had also travelled to Argentina, Venezuela and Peru. Perhaps she is taking up capoeira, learning to code and will climb Matterhorn this year.