The old flock to Farage and the young are on climate strike. How did age come to define our politics?

Climate change and the financial crisis have fallen most heavily on the young. And so it is they who are most interested in a radical restructuring of our society

Keir Milburn
Friday 24 May 2019 16:09 BST
Greta Thunberg says climate change message is 'clearly not getting through' in speech to MPs

Across the UK today, in one hundred and eighteen cities, towns and villages, young people are walking out of their schools and colleges to demonstrate for action against climate change. It’s the latest in a series of school climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. These demonstrations, emerging spontaneously and spreading virally, have had a dramatic impact on politics around the world but they are also a phenomenon that needs explaining. They beg the question: why have young people taken the lead on climate action?

In some ways, the answer is obvious. The climate crisis contains inherent generational injustices. People of my generation and older have emitted so much carbon that young people have a massively reduced “carbon budget” with which to both live their lives and tackle climate change. Indeed, the real impact of the carbon that older generations have emitted will fall not primarily on them but on the young and on generations to come.

But on top of this I think a more fundamental rupture has taken place. The lack of action on climate change has led to a breakdown of traditional generational claims to authority based on experience.

It’s a problem illustrated by John Lanchester’s new climate change novel, The Wall. Like all good Sci-Fi it extrapolates from current trends allowing us to see them more clearly. The wall in question surrounds what’s left of Britain in a post-deluge future. It protects those inside the wall from “the others” outside it who are shot on sight. In this way, it illustrates the central role that climate driven migration will play in the years ahead; but the truly striking theme of the book is its focus on the breakdown in generational authority.

As the young protagonist says: “People of my generation can’t talk to our parents… The life advice, the knowing-better, the-back-in-my-day wisdom, which was a big part of the whole deal between parents and children, just doesn’t work. Want to put me straight about what I’m doing in my life, Grandad? No thanks. Why don’t you travel back in time and unf***up the world and then travel back here and maybe we can talk.”

It’s a passage that brings to mind a recent video of a meeting between US senator Dianne Feinstein and a group of schoolchildren pleading with her to take action on climate change. It’s Senator Feinstein’s dismissive attitude that made the video go viral. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” she says, “I know what I’m doing.” In the video, you can see shock and despair spread across the children’s faces and they are right to be outraged.

Over the last thirty years, which covers Senator Feinstein’s reign, mankind has released over half of all the carbon ever emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. In thirty years, we have moved from a relatively stable climate to one on the brink of utter catastrophe and, as the first international agreement recognising man-made climate change was signed in 1988, we have done this in full knowledge of the consequences. It’s little wonder that children are leading the protests against climate change when “adult” knowledge of “how things are done” has led us to this point.

This breakdown of authority can also be found around the other great cataclysm of our time: the economic crisis that started in 2007 but whose aftershocks are still rumbling through our political and economic systems. The inability to escape this cycle of crises has caused a collapse of confidence in claims to authority in the political and economic spheres based on “knowing how things are done”. This breakdown in elite authority was obvious in the Brexit referendum but also, like climate change, the aftermath of the economic crisis has fallen out on generational lines.

The post-crisis economic regime of austerity, low interest rates and quantitative easing has kept asset prices high but wages low. As asset ownership – primarily housing but also pensions invested in stocks – is so divided generationally, the elderly generally haven’t done too badly from the crisis. As a consequence, they have overwhelmingly attached themselves to right-wing political projects that are promising more of the same. The Brexit Party, for example, is primarily supported by the over 55s.

The young, on the other hand, are forecast to be the first generation for several hundred years to have lower life-time earnings than their parents. They therefore tend to be open to a more radical restructuring of society.

This political generation gap, in which age has become the key predictor of someone’s political opinion and voting intention, means any “green new deal” proposed by parties of the left must take into account the needs of the elderly. One of its key tenets should be to address the crisis of elderly care and, as I argue in my book Generation Left, also include the socialisation of housing in a way that overcomes the age segregation of the present. Only this will temp the old out from behind the isolating walls of their private property and allow for the progressive social majority needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Keir Milburn is a lecturer in Political Economy and Organisation at the University of Leicester. His latest book, Generation Left, published recently by Polity, explains why young people are moving to the left while older people are tending towards the right

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