activism climate change

Third Act and later life activism

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 (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.”


  1. hello Jeremy

    You make a very interesting point.

    Here, in Horsham, I help run a Green Hub and Repair Cafe once a month. We offer advice on recycling, and also run a refill service. Our experience is that 99% of our 150 or so volunteers are over 60, and our customer base is probably over 40. We would love to reach out to the younger element in our town but don’t seem to be able to find a way. We have contacted our local schools and college, but making inroads into their community is an uphill struggle. I think that the next generation of jobs will be in the ‘green recycling environment’ but we do not seem to be able to get that across to the teachers and lecturers. I would really love to run a fashion recycling/upcycling class but there does not seem to be any interest. Can you help?

    1. Those are great ideas. I’m in the U.S., or I would help. I keep hoping to see more upcycled fashion in the mainstream. Especially with men, mainstream fashion houses should be dressing them for less air-conditioning, not more…but culture wars are playing out in the financial and fashion world, too, sadly. What you’re doing sounds wonderful. At some point, it’s bound to catch on!

    2. I know lots of projects that struggle to engage young people, and I don’t have any solutions I’m afraid! The only organisations I see that are working with young people successfully on the local level are specifically youth agencies. They might be doing mentoring, sports or other things, and if they add climate to their agenda they already have the relationships there to make it work.

      It’s much easier for a youth agency to do climate things than for a climate agency to do youth things, because young people already know it’s for them. Whereas turning up to an environmental event and finding you’re the only young person tends to communicate that it’s not for you, no matter how welcoming everybody is.

      That’s ultimately the thing that matters – relationships. So if among your volunteers you’ve got a grandchild that might get involved, and they invited a friend or two, you might have a way in. Otherwise some kind of partnership with a youth agency might be best.

  2. Met some volunteers at a protest this past summer. Their business card said “Third Act.” I can tell you that when you meet them, you don’t forget them. They are sophisticated and impressive. It is wrongheaded to point fingers at older people as some students recently did at me when implying my generation created and was doing nothing about the problem. Most people did not know that climate change was happening until long after it had started. The minute I heard, I started to do all I could. But I did not know about it until 2008 when I was 32. Thank you for another great post!

    1. Yes, that’s one of the ways that experience is undervalued. Young people might think they’re alert to something that older generations missed, but there was always a counterculture. There wouldn’t be an environmental movement at all without people now in their 70s and 80s who set things in motion 50 years ago. It’s unfair to generalise across generations in both directions – not all young people get climate change either!

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