The climate movement is often described as youthful. Media coverage certainly talks about it that way, and I regularly hear people talk about how children and teenagers are more environmentally aware. A lot of the high profile figures are young people, and school strikes have been some of the most iconic actions of recent years.
At the same time, every time I go to a climate march or event, it’s full of people older than I am. I noticed it again at Extinction Rebellion’s gathering at the weekend. Research shows little difference in concern about climate change across the generations.
Are we underestimating the contribution of older activists? I suspect so.
One organisation that’s redressing the balance is Third Act, which specifically works with people over sixty. They argue that there’s a whole demographic in America that has “life experience, skills and resources” in abundance, and they should throw their weight behind social movements.
This isn’t just a matter of opportunity, but of necessity. Many countries in the global North have aging populations, and the over-60s is the fastest-growing demographic in America. The biggest social problems will not be solved without their participation.
In mobilising older generations, Third Act are wary of taking control, and they explicitly want to play a supporting role. “We understand that our generations, taken as a whole, have helped create some of the troubles we now face,” they acknowledge. “We think we have important roles to play in dealing with those troubles—but we also know that one of our big and joyful jobs is to support younger people leading movements for environmental and social justice. They often ask for support, not direction, and that’s what we should provide.”
Third Act is only a couple of years old, and so far it has focused on voting rights and on climate change. This is no surprise, as the organisation was founded by Bill McKibben, so often described as a ‘veteran’ environmentalist himself, and a founder of the influential 350.org. (More from McKibben next week, as I’m reading his latest book)
Third Act aren’t alone in this. Among the many community groups running pickets or stands at the current XR protest are the ‘grandparents and elders group‘. Lancashire’s Nanas Against Fracking were instrumental in quashing the Conservatives’ big plans for fracked gas. The US and Canada have something similar in the group Raging Grannies. There’s the Grey and Green Manifesto, and a number of local and national Grandparents for the Future chapters. None of these organisations have the reach of some of the climate movement’s youth-let organisations, but it would be a mistake to think that the climate challenge is being ignored by senior citizens.
In fact, older activists may have something particularly important to bring to the table. While research shows similar rates of concern over climate change, and willingness to act or make sacrifices, there is one notable area of difference: optimism.
Professor Bobby Duffy, author of Generations, has studied attitudes to the climate across generations. He points out that fatalism about the climate is more common among the young, the feeling that it’s all too late: “Older people are actually less likely than the young to feel that it’s pointless to act in environmentally conscious ways because it won’t make a difference. Parents and grandparents care deeply about the legacy they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren – not just their house or jewellery, but the state of the planet. If we want a greener future, we need to act together, uniting the generations, rather than trying to drive an imagined wedge between them.”