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January 09, 2024

Affirming Older Adults as Champions for Intergenerational Justice and Climate Reform

Aliya Prosser
The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 44; Issue 3.

Older adults need to be included in advocacy on climate change as many are interested and adversely impacted by this issue. Age is one of the first things we observe about someone. When we associate someone’s age with distinct life experiences and behaviors, we are imagining who the person is in relation to specific cultures and capacities. Therefore aging, a highly individual experience, is oftentimes understood through socially constructed generalizations surrounding what older persons know and practice. Several of these impressions are grounded in negative, narrow attitudes that are frequently paired with aging in society. As they are adopted, the order of our humanity is influenced by age-discrimination. This mode of inequity is best described as “ageism”: the imposition of stereotypes and prejudices against a generation.

The older adult population is susceptible to ageism as older persons often experience high rates of cognitive impairment, illness, risk-taking behaviors, healthcare spending, incarceration, poverty, and other adverse conditions that impair their functional abilities. Between these issues and other costs of aging, younger generations and older adults themselves tend to devalue people of older ages, perceiving them as too incapacitated and disconnected from reality to provide any credible contributions to the world. In fact, 1 in 2 people are ageist against older people. While they are already prone to an abundance of wellness and financial challenges in the aging process, older persons are vulnerable to the marginalization that results from the spread of ageism as their identities and needs are shut out of critical movements for change. 

Because older adults endure inordinate rates of ageism, they are often denied representation in modern climate reform initiatives. Often portrayed in mass media as the generation that behaves complacently in the face of global warming, lawmakers frequently exclude older adults from legal action designed to address climate change by targeting younger adults as the central audience for their policy interventions and dismissing older persons' perspectives on environmental justice. Therefore, media outlets and legislators tend to display the deterioration of the climate as a conflict for younger generations to resolve, not a matter for older individuals to voice their demands, apply their expertise, or participate in policy making. This discriminatory angle of coverage on the issue rejects the ultimate truth that older persons are stakeholders in climate reform, especially as older adults constitute large percentages of people who are limited in their capacity to cope with extreme climate variability. 

Changes in our bodies as we age can make it more difficult for older adults to cope with heat, or resist vector-borne diseases. Prolonged disasters can damage the physical and mental health of older adults. Additionally, older adults who are experiencing neurocognitive decline may experience disorientation and distress following climate extremes. Extreme weather events can result in a change in displacement from medical care or equipment and personal items. When weather events result in a change in living arrangements it can result in “transfer trauma” and negative health outcomes and feelings of helplessness.

As climate disasters pose life altering threats against the health and welfare of all, the impacts of them are felt differently by diverse groups of people. Families with young children may be displaced from day-care, schools, and social activities. Working adults often experience a loss of earnings. And older adults may face health risks because of the extreme climate events.

In actuality, masses of the older adult population can respond to the climate change crisis with engagement as many carry knowledge and experience in the environmental sector, and many wish to improve the quality of the world that they will leave for their grandchildren. Although media organizations and lawmakers often convey a story of climate reform that suggests younger people can be climate activists and older persons cannot, not one age group can afford to be alienated from efforts to combat our diminishing ecosystems. By ostracizing older adults from the conversation on climate justice (despite their sensitivity to environmental hazards) media channels and legislators jeopardize the generational adaptability of all communities and dishonor the legitimate interests of older persons in a clean atmosphere.

To mobilize or to silence groups of people in the climate reform movement is a matter of life or death for our civilization on Earth. Yet, the older adult community continues to lack inclusion in action steps organized to mitigate the climate change crisis regardless of the fact that they are marginally endangered by its consequences. How can everyone have a seat at the table? Researchers point to intergenerational justice as one solution.

Intergenerational justice is a distributive form of equity in which present generations hold moral obligations to future generations. Intergenerational equity as a concept stems from the idea of a human-rights based humanity, a world in which people are assessed on their own merits and maintain equal access to opportunities. It is the understanding that people have different standards for life that evolve over time, and thus current generations are responsible for providing future populations with options for how they can fulfill their values in coming times. The principle is that all generations are allies in ensuring that the agendas of each age group are met at comparable quality as they are translated from one community to another. Therefore, intergenerational justice calls for every person’s rights to be realized on the same scale, and the volume of that work requires existing age groups to rally against intergenerational conflicts. 

Best Practices for Implementing Intergenerational Justice

Raising awareness on the impact of ageism

While seemingly invisible, ageism is pervasive and has evident detrimental impacts on the perception of adults as they age. It facilitates injustice and violence against individuals of all ages by isolating people from their human rights and hindering opportunities for cross-generational relationship building. Additionally, it disproportionately restricts low socioeconomic persons and those with disabilities from obtaining agency in diverse political, social, and economic systems. Because media reporters and legislators tend to pinpoint the sentiments of younger generations in climate reform activism, they often frame aging as a negative process and separate the demands of older adults from environmental action. As this biased viewpoint is circulated between populations, older generations are denied access to power, including: the laws, social norms, and institutions that underlie their basic freedoms. By educating climate justice investors on the ramifications of age-based discrimination, the benefits of old age, and existing social justice initiatives lead by older adults, our society can amplify the lived experience of aging and disrupt the dysfunctions within our systems that disempower older communities from creating change.

Highlighting age diversity at the core of media reporting and policy development

Age diversity refers to the acceptance of all ages in an enterprise. It reflects the greater reality that aging is a function of life that is unique to each person. While it is true that people vary in competency, intellect, and culture, our society tends to divide populations into groups based on identifying factors such as gender or race. This order fails to encompass the extent to which every person carries a different individuality, and that personhood relates to numerous experiences that often extend farther than the limits that society creates for who someone can be. As a result of these misconceptions, underrepresented communities such as the older adult population tend to encounter systemic and interpersonal barriers in the process of claiming their rights and practicing allyship. Through maintaining a language for covering world problems that appreciates age diversity, media experts and legislators can maximize every person’s role in achieving intergenerational goals like environmental justice. The scope of this investment involves correcting ageist rhetoric riddled in responses to global issues, and leveraging the contributions made by people of all ages.

Intergenerational justice emphasizes the value of older and younger generations coming together in mutual respect to actualize the lifetime of wisdom and skills offered by people of diverse ages. While it is difficult to predict all of the forthcoming problems facing our society, we can design a framework for conflict resolution that permits individuals of all ages to be players in collaborative interventions against world issues. As climate change is a high-priority problem with momentous implications for all, older generations can no longer be gatekept from environmental justice measures. If there is any will to decrease the growing inequalities between people of different ages, older adults must be extended a political-legal platform to advocate for the conservation of Earth’s natural resources alongside younger adults. By generating solidarity between older and younger communities, intergenerational justice and environmental equity can be achieved in a manner that enables older adults to live safe and dignified lives as they age, and liberates the next change leaders as they strive to build a healthier world.

    Aliya Prosser

    Trinity College

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