The Climate Action Team was joined at our last meeting by three sophomores from Agnes Scott College for a conversation about obstacles and opportunities in intergenerational collaborations. The three students had spent several days last month with leaders of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light as part of their college’s sophomore leadership experience, and I met them at a green team leader panel. At the CAT meeting, they shared personal experiences of working in social justice spaces with older adults, especially in their faith communities (United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian Universalist). 

The students detailed the challenges of feeling tokenized, dismissed as naive, excluded from plan making, expected to speak for their generation, and judged as not caring enough about the environment. They pointed to their peers’ attraction to “tangible” outcomes, like the goals of the Stop Cop City movement and efforts to repeal states’ restrictive reproductive rights laws. Gender affirming care and trans rights were also issues they felt particularly drawn to, and they were quick to highlight the intersectionality of these issues with climate change.

Our team is primarily composed of older adults, so the students offered advice to help us become more inviting to young activists. Make the space safe for asking questions without judging younger adults as ignorant or naive. Include young adults in every aspect of decision making and refrain from showcasing them simply because of their youth. Respect that their schedules are very full – and often out of their control – and the time pressures they feel are different from those of older adults. This might preclude them from attending events regularly, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or can’t commit.

In a society that tends to stratify by age on many fronts, we could be more intentional about bridging divides and cultivating opportunities for intergenerational dialogue and collaboration. The environmental crisis requires all hands on deck, and supporting young adults to become reliable voters, courageous candidates, and ethical business leaders is critical work for older generations. Their mental health should be a concern for all of us, too.

Gen Z was born between 1996 – 2015, whereas Millennials were born between 1977 – 1995. A 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll found that while 67% of Gen Zers were worried about the impact of climate change on their mental health, only 42% of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964) were somewhat or very concerned. These stats may not characterize the concerns of our highly-engaged team members.

There’s evidence that younger generations see the writing on the wall and are increasingly open to major lifestyle changes. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center study: “Younger generations in the U.S. are especially likely to express an interest in addressing climate change – and to say they have personally taken some kind of action to do so. … [They] are more likely than older Americans to favor proposals to shift U.S. energy reliance away from fossil fuels or even eliminate fossil fuels entirely.” They are the ones we desperately need to become political, scientific, and corporate leaders to ensure a livable future.

“Young activists are especially creative and open to new ways of doing things, including when it comes to bridging cultural and ideological divides,” according to The United States Institute of Peace (USIP). “Studies show that creativity and tactical innovation are key determinants of movement success – and young activists have driven tactical innovation in digital spaces and often offer creative fuel for civic culture during protest movements. In addition, USIP case studies suggest that youth activists are more willing to work across traditional societal lines than their older peers, and that youth movements often reject party affiliations and call for wholesale political or ‘system’ change, thereby winning supporters across existing political divides.”

Their potential impact can be undermined, though, just as the Agnes Scott students explained to our team. “Youth are often marginalized in movement spaces,” according to USIP. “Rather than adopting an allyship model, civil society organizations too often treat young people as if their activism needs to be structured by older adults to be effective. Likewise, political parties tend to be hierarchical and dominated by older adults, leading to youth disillusionment in politics. Today’s youth feel instrumentalized: Young people endure significant risk of harm as front-line activists, but are denied agency over movement strategy and rarely ascend to positions of political influence even after successful nonviolent campaigns.”

So what does the USIP suggest? “Going forward, civil society organizations and social movements should do more to deliberately recruit young people. This starts by including and prioritizing young people’s goals and aspirations, and by offering to walk with youth as they engage in political advocacy rather than imposing a predetermined structure or set of priorities.”

USIP encourages “investing in programming on youth political engagement, which can prepare young people to make the transition from grassroots activism to political leadership. Trainings in public speaking and campaign management should be more prevalent and should be incorporated in the early stages of activism to develop skills that will bear fruit later on. This is especially important for young women, who are less likely to be included in such opportunities compared to their male counterparts.”

What else might help groups of veteran environmentalists draw more participation from the younger set? Advocates for Youth offers these nine tips: 

  1. Communicate openly, especially in regards to the required level of involvement. The roles and tasks that derive from the projects should be meaningful and evenly distributed.
  2. Be honest about the expectations of the project goal and youth contribution. Make sure that the expectations for youth are realistic and fair.
  3. Establish clear and tangible goals. The goal of partnering with youth is not just about starting a project and meeting the goal but to create a long-term relationship and to build more support for current projects and future ones. Goals do not necessarily need to be related to the organization but could be a goal that aims for personal growth.
  4. Understand where young people are coming from. There will be times that they will say no. Just put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge that they need to say no to keep up with other important responsibilities in their life. They also need the energy to continue to do the work. Do not react negatively to a young person saying they are unable to take something on.
  5. Acknowledge each individual’s voice. Just because you hear one young individual say something, it does not mean another young individual feels the same way. It is essential to recognize that youth voices are different and vary. Each voice should be valued and considered. 
  6. Support and connect young people to opportunities. Partnering with youth for community change is great, but providing or putting youth in the right direction of resources for social, mental, behavioral, and emotional services can make a big difference in a young person’s life.
  7. Seek out resources. As adults, there may be a disconnect with youth because of generational differences and ageism. It is important to seek out resources on youth health and development to learn how to partner with young people. It is equally vital to attend different training sessions and workshops on the topic.
  8. Be flexible. Young people go through much more than what people think they do. Life does not always go the way that we want it, so it is important to be accommodating to each young individual’s life and to be understanding of the schedule changes.
  9. Create a safe and welcoming space for everyone. Some ways to create a safe space for all include being a friendly face, using appropriate language, being non judgemental, accepting, and reassuring how young people are needed/wanted for the projects to be able to make a difference.

These tips seem applicable to almost anyone – at any age – don’t they? They definitely align with what our group heard from the Agnes Scott students. At a time when many are feeling increasingly pessimistic about the future and the ability of young adults to “right the ship,” our best course of action may be to build up their confidence, optimism, and organizing skills.

Roberta Katz, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, sums up the youngest generation this way: “A typical Gen Zer is a self-driver who deeply cares about others, strives for a diverse community, is highly collaborative and social, values flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership, and, while dismayed about inherited issues like climate change, has a pragmatic attitude about the work that has to be done to address those issues.” Maybe those of us in the Boomer and Gen X camps will be in good hands after all. 

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JOURNEY WITH US: The Climate Action Team is for you because, well, the planet needs your urgent action – and we need each other as we navigate these changing times. Learn all about the group here,  and check out our minutes and take action table, our lending library and the Carbon Offset Fund. You can also request to join the Climate Action Team on Realm. Contact Nicole Haines to connect to the CAT and join us for our next Zoom meeting on Monday, May 20, at 7:30 PM at this link. You’re also encouraged to join our grounds workday and lunchtime documentary screening beginning at 10 AM this Saturday, April 20, at the church!