The valley

For a brief period of time, in the early ‘noughties’, there had seemed to be a shift – the intergenerational relationship gulf had seemingly closed. Now, just a decade later, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is an ideological conflict brewing between generations: Twitter catcalls of “Ok Boomer”, generally thrown out by Generation Z, are met with frustration; ‘woke’ Millennials failing to understand their experiences of the world are not the same as their younger counterparts; Gen X’ers embracing the ideologies that keep other generations poor, marginalised and oppressed. In my own country, England, issues like Brexit and even the current COVID-19 response, have shown the situation up for what it is. The generation gap has slid very firmly back into place, and at times the rift between generations seems huge.

The current call for climate action has largely been led by children, and young people. Most obviously symbolised by Greta Thunberg. The kind of protest, dissent and pushing back against societal norms that has emerged from this movement has been inspiring. It has also highlighted the void that exists between different generations and their understanding of the need for climate action. Some of the recent online abuse of Greta and her peers is disturbing – why do so many older (often men) feel threatened by children quoting scientists?

My generation (I am at the older end of the Millennials) are most concerned with ridding our planet of plastic straws, turning to veganism, and switching to slow-fashion. There is of course nothing wrong with these endeavours, but we Millennials do seem to miss the point. It is not just our own personal habits that need to change – the entire world system needs a radical shake-up in order to achieve anything like the kind of change the science demands! Boomers, my parents generation, feel guilty. Guilty, but also comfortable. They take the accusations of the youth personally but fail to understand why the children and teens are so scared. After all, the life they have experienced has been one peppered with warnings of apocalypse that have never come to pass – why should this be any different? Gen X’ers are worried – they were promised a future where they could be anything they want to be, they are now raising angry, petulant teenagers who are telling them this future simply doesn’t exist. Gen Z, the Zoomers, are the ones out on the streets holding leaders accountable. They are also a generation crippled by loneliness, a lack of mental wellbeing and a sense of isolation in a world that should be more connected than ever.

It would be so easy to sit around listing off the different reasons every generation is wrong. But what good does that do us?  Scepticism about climate science has no place in any generation, nor does blame. Blame traps us in inaction. There is clearly intergenerational injustice when we examine the climate crisis. I am 100% behind Greta Thunberg’s stern words to world leaders – we, the older generations, have utterly failed the youth and those yet to be born. How dare we! Yet, to stay stuck in a rhetoric of blame, or to be spending week after week creating a defence rather than getting on with what is needed does nothing to address that injustice. Intergenerational squabbling and shaming is a waste of our time – we need to be working on meaningful, inclusive dialogue so that we can all move forward together in addressing this emergency.

The climate crisis needs of us. Young, old. middle-aged. It needs the innovation and fierce clarity brought by Gen Z, the desire to be inclusive and intersectional championed by Millennials, the power to challenge structures top-down held by so many in Gen X, the wisdom that is held in the Boomer and Silent generations. It needs everyone. There is a place for calling out inequality but the only way we can ever start to change the world in a way that will loosen the bonds of injustice is by acting.

Lessons from the different generations

Gen Z – Gen Z have it right when it comes to the climate crisis. We do not have time to waste. This is not about liberalism versus conversative ideologies. This is about the very clear science that demands radical action now. And radical action is about individuals creating change but it also has to be far, far more than that – we need an entire systems change. We need the fossil fuel industry to fall, and to fall quickly, and to be replaced with renewable, clean energy sources. We need systems that help the world’s poorest people to adapt. We need finance, business and governments to all be on board. Gen Z are scared and they are scared with good reason – the rest of us need to get on side and support our young people. Not with platitudes or our wokeness – with real, concrete action.

Millennials – Millennials have such a sense of justice (and injustice). This is the generation that are generally calling out the racial, gender and sexuality dynamics at play in the reporting of the climate crisis and the way the climate crisis affects the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. We need these challenges in a world where white, male, straight privilege still holds the power. We need these challenges in a world where it is the poorest, most marginalised, especially those in the Global South that are feeling the brunt of the climate crisis first. All generations need to listen to the Millennials, and then do more than just listen. Not only does action on this crisis need all of us no matter what age we are – it needs all of us period.

Gen X – This generation really were the last to taste the fruits of postwar, middle-class stability in many of the world’s most powerful economies, but they have also been the first to see major elements of it snatched away. Gen X have had to wait a while for Boomers to leave the stage – but many now hold positions of power in industry, governments and finance. This generation has a wealth of experience and needs everyone’s support to know which future to choose. Sometimes called the ‘invisible generation’ they actually hold immense power when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.

Boomers – Ok Boomer… This generation has become the politically dominant force in the West and the United States, in particular. They are a large cohort. They vote. Boomers are our parents and grandparents. They are also our politicians and those who most often vote our politicians in. This generation paved the way for the rights of women and people of color in the workplace – yes we are not there yet, but they created change their parents never did. They also built the technology industry that changed the world – a lot of that transformation has brought millions out of poverty. We need the Boomers. We need them as they hold such huge swathes of political power. We need them because without them nothing will change quickly enough.

Together is better

Here are some great sources of inspiration for those ready to embrace intergenerational action on the climate emergency:

Mothers of Invention podcastFormer Irish President Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins celebrate amazing women doing remarkable things in pursuit of climate justice. Mary Robinson describes herself as an ‘angry granny’. For as much as this is about women, it is also about women of different ages creating change.

Fridays for Future – One of the best ways all other generations can get behind Gen Z is to join them in the streets as they strike. Speak to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Understand where they are coming from. Then join them.

Mothers Rise Up – A movement of mums taking action because they have identified with the intergenerational injustice of the climate crisis.

Advice for Gen Zs and Millennials talking to the Boomers in their lives – A helpful guide for younger people on how to speak to older people about engaging in climate action (without patronising or alienating them!)