"Each new generation is reared by its predecessor; the latter must therefore improve in order to improve its successor. The movement is circular." - Emile Durkheim
How are Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Bill Mckibben, Pope Francis, and Al Gore alike? The answer is very simple: they are part of a 60+ cohort, which includes baby boomers and their predecessors. And they are all very effective and passionate about how to tackle the biggest threat of our times: climate change.
I vividly remember that the first person who drew my attention as a child to the environment was my grandfather who was a small farmer in my native Poland. Around twenty-five years ago, during my first visit to Siberia, tribal seniors raised the issue of the melting of the “eternal ice” as well. Neither my grandfather nor the seniors were highly educated, but they were able to observe the rapid changes in their own environment. Despite this, we did not heed their concerns as they did not possess academic credentials. Now that over five thousand researchers have agreed that climate change is occurring, we are suddenly starting to pay attention.
Older adults constantly address the issues involved in global warming to Millennials, youth or even children, fully aware that their generation’s irresponsible behavior contributed immensely to the current state of the Earth. But why exclude the culprits? What happened to resocialization and second chances? Even James Madison was aware of generational responsibilities when he stated: “Each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations.”
The baby boomers and the silent generation are reaping the benefits of the “longevity dividend”. Why don’t we start working together towards the survival of our kind not only as preachers, but also in the trenches of the global climate change movement? Members of the grey generations are often bold, skilled, experienced, financially independent, and in most cases, are very active and sensitive to social inequity. As the old saying goes: the funeral shroud has no pockets. It is in their best interest to be part of this movement.
Don’t think social media is just intended for youth either. The fastest growing age groups on social media are people over 65. The percentage of individuals over 65 who say they use social media has more than tripled from just 13% in 2009 to 43% in 2013. Furthermore, 60% of baby boomers in the 50 to 64 age group are using social networks to communicate. These people are avid social advocates with the time, flexibility and money to enjoy the latest gadgets.
As a sociologist, I passionately and continuously pass on the message of climate change and its threat to my students each semester. However, I have started to be a bit confused and even frustrated that I keep passing additional responsibility to generations Y and Z and fail to address the communication gap between them and generation X. I struggled in this state of intellectual uncertainty for a while until I came across an article from the American Society on Aging written by Michael Smyer and Jim Gilmartin entitled: Graying Green: Climate Communication for an Aging World. After reading the article, I immediately understood that there are others who wonder about the same issue and think similarly. Through it, I was able to connect the dots to my many questions. Smyer and Gilmartin are seasoned researchers and advocates. Smyer is a psychologist and the Provost at Bucknell University who has spent his career focused on aging. He is the founder of Graying Green, an effort to engage increasing numbers of older adults in climate action. Gilmartin has spent his career in marketing and is the founder of Coming of Age a firm that focuses on marketing to older adults. Together, they led a session on Graying Green.
In this article, both Smyer and Gilmartin take a closer look at one of the milestones, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America written by Thomas L. Friedman. Apparently, Friedman overlooked his own generation in his call for Geo-Greenism, with the first Green President and a Green New Deal, spurred by the Greenest Generation.
What has been less apparent until recently, however, is that many developing countries - the very countries that struggle with balancing economic development and ecological sustainability –are also coping with a rapidly aging population. Many of the developed nations experienced population aging over many decades, giving them time to prepare the social, economic and healthcare infrastructure needed to respond to older adults’ changing needs. But in many developing countries- notably China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey – there is now the concern of accelerated aging in their populations.
To put it another way, aging is a growth field, with the highest rate of population growth among those 65 and over.
Although some have begun to analyze the impact of an aging population on climate conditions (e.g., O’Neill, Jiang & Gerland, 2015), few have focused attention on the climate knowledge and actions of older adults. However, recent research from Stanford, the NY Times, and Resources for the Future reported age differences in assessing how important Global Warming will be for the US.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) takes a similar approach. Their surveys have documented that the majority of Americans now acknowledge climate change. In addition, the YPCCC and their colleagues at George Mason have focused attention on age differences in thought and willingness to take action on global warming.
This data suggests that older adults could be important allies in responding to climate change. Why focus some of our attention and efforts on reaching older adults?
Three good reasons: they are political and thought leaders; developmentally, they are primed to think about legacy issues and future generations; and today’s younger generations turn to them for advice.
Because of their own lifetimes, older adults are primed to think about future generations and legacy issues. Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity has said that aging brings a shift in sense of timing: a focus on time left to live. At the same time, Erik Erikson suggested that later life is a time naturally focused on giving back to your own offspring (insert grandchildren’s names and pictures here!) and future generations. Current younger generations today report that family members - parents and grandparents - are important sources of information and advice. For all of these reasons, we cannot afford to overlook older adults and their potential to contribute to climate communications and climate solutions.
Smyer’s and Gilmartin’s argument is simple and compelling and we need to bring it into the discussion tables at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris during the COP 21 in December. It’s time for climate scientists and climate communicators to target older adults for some of their findings and action steps. A good starting point would be to ask three basic questions: How do age and cohort affect climate belief? How do age and cohort affect the effectiveness of climate communication? How do age and cohort affect actions in response to climate change? Undoubtedly, these should be part of the discussions in Paris. It will be hard to achieve a final climate consensus without full engagement and support of those present who represent 16 percent of our global population. The power of Graying Green should be harnessed besides being heard loud and clear: “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.” – “Nothing About Us Without Us!” We should tackle climate change in an “all hands on deck“ style in order to save and preserve our planet Earth, and in doing so be responsible and vigorous stewards.
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Photograph of elderly man in Bhutan by Curt Carnemark via World Bank Photo Collection
Graphs 1 and 2 based on United Nations World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision from Pew Research
Graph 3 based on finding from Yale Project on Climate Communication/George Mason