You hear them from far away. They carry painted placards and flags. At times they sing. They chant. They scream. They call for attention – but from whom? From the government, large companies or from her? - That middle-aged women standing on her window in awe, unmistakably questioning her political engagement. Observing the streets, she can clearly make out the youth. The seriousness in their eyes when they speak on the media, when they raise their voice to hold us accountable. Us – the “older generation that is failing the youth,” in the words of Greta Thunberg. Where are the adults in the fight for this future?
Are adults occupying different streets, held back by other priorities or even unwelcome in the activist spaces? Recent articles have raised the concern that ageism has crept into parts of contemporary social movements. Ageism refers to stereotyping or discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. Take a moment to think, if you have ever been subject to ageist discrimination. Do you think one can be too old to be an activist, too young to be heard in the media? This article critically reflects upon these questions, asking: (How) can adult learning and education facilitate inter-generational activism?
Finding real life answers to these questions, I interviewed a Danish folk-high school teacher, an Irish anti-ageism and LGBTQIA+ activist and a member of Parents for Future Germany.
The Adult Educator
Hearing the voice of an adult educator, I had the opportunity to interview Claus Staal who spent the past 10 years teaching philosophy, human rights and religion at a Danish Folk Highschool. With a background in philosophy and a strong passion for pedagogy, Staal taught at universities before he became a teacher at International’s People’s College.
When asked about the role of Folk-High schools in educating for change, Staal replies: “It is no secret that we live in a world with problems that are incredibly difficult to solve. The measures taken in the past are not the ones that will work in the future.” Adult education institutions can be reluctant to change and therewith slow in adapting to the needs of time. Despite his fascination for the mission of Folk-High schools, Staal questions to which extend political education is the responsibility of adult education institutions. “Folk-high schools aren’t there to politicize people”. Rather, they educate to give adults a different perspective on life, foster relationships, curiosity and an attitude of lifelong learning.
Staal believes that many adults are stuck in old ways of thinking and that “by age 40 their motivation to change is already ruined”. Embedded in a life of responsibilities mid-aged adults have a lot at stake: their job, reputation, integrity and often a family life. Working with younger adults at Folk-High schools offers more potential, as the learners have “less to lose” and are eager to learn with an open mind. While sustainability and green activism have made it into the curriculum in his school, more generic political ideas are likely to be interwoven in thematic areas. Eventually, Staal comments, a Folk Highschool can facilitate intergenerational dialogue, acquaint learners with new fields and build bridges across opinions, but should not directly impose a political agenda.
The Anti-Ageism Activist
After the reflection of the adult educator, I turn towards Ciarán McKinney, an activist, Social Scientist and the Engage program manager at Age and Opportunity, the leading Irish development organization improving the quality of life of people aged 50-100. McKinney believes that older adult activism is often not recognized, and the internalization of ageism can become self-limiting. “Maybe I am too old to get involved…? Or maybe I am too young to be heard?” Although internalised ageism is a reality in many political spaces, it is often not noticed because it is subtle. In his work McKinney invites people to rethink their own attitude towards ageing, encouraging solidarity across generations.
Asked about inter-generational activism, he mentions that it is often forgotten that older adults are in many cases the backbone of community volunteering. This form of local engagement is a form of citizenship activism, but often not framed as political. Civic activism often centers around social cohesion and according to McKinney, could carry a stronger political mission. Many causes older adults are engaged with could clearly be placed on a human rights agenda.
Aligning with Staal’s perception of people’s priorities in their 40s, McKinney highlights that many parents are nevertheless, involved in volunteering in their children’s lives.Thinking about older adults that are active on the political spectrum, McKinney recalls that most people he knows have been involved in activism since the 80s. While in certain campaigns the following diversifies (such as in the Irish abortion rights campaign), in many cases the same people stick to a certain issue or organizing group.
McKinney is committed to bring inter-generational dialogue further onto the policy agenda and foster it in practice. “We need to develop a life course approach because challenging ageism now is an investment in your older life later on.” Combining his vision with his work, he is encouraging people of all ages to get involved in volunteering or activism because it does not only serve the community but also has its own benefits – bringing joy and the possibility of meeting wonderful people.
The young woman (she prefers to stay anonymous) joined Parents for Future with the ambition to support her daughters in any way possible. As a mother of two, she has noticed how occupied her children are about the climate crisis and how visible other societal injustices are for them in today’s media environment. Asked, about inter-generational activism, she replies that she “doesn’t want to take away the platform of the young” – “as they are the ones that will change the minds of the politicians”. At the same time, she expressed that she felt responsible for her generation’s inaction on the climate crisis. “It is my obligation to stand here with my children.” She believes that engagement in societal issues should not depend on having children – but should be engrained in everyone’s civic responsibility. Asked about the priorities of her peers, she aligns with McKinney and Staal and comments “that being comfortable can limit people’s perceived responsibility in the world.”
What do these interviews leave us with apart of the overarching demand for more inter-generational dialogue. Some of the responses have pointed towards a generational gap in social activism – witnessing a peak in activism among the younger and the older ones. Adults between 30-60 years appear to be preoccupied with life duties. Should active citizenship be a life duty, a responsibility of adulthood? Should adult educators and learning institutions generate awareness and provide adults with the tools and the confidence to engage politically? Is it their role? Whose role?
Reclaim our streets – A call to action
In the final days of this year, revive your creativity – join your friend, your daughter, your grandchild in drawing that placard, singing that song. Listen, read, contemplate and stay curious about how other generations engage - in making this world a better place. A just world requires inter-generational activism - spaces where learning transcends ageist boundaries. Spaces in which rethinking one’s role and responsibility is a call to action. Reclaiming that collective wisdom, ask someone from a different generation…
how they imagine the future.