All Generations Give us Leaders, but Never the Same
During this fall, I’ve been the host and moderator of a talk series between different generations of sustainability leaders in collaboration with the Danish platform TOMORROW and the inspirational Caroline Søeborg Ahlefeldt. In this conversation concept, a young generation met an established generation currently occupying positions of influence in Denmark.
We called the meetings ‘Between Generations’, and it has, so far, resulted in a collection of four meetings between sustainability leaders aged 15 to 61. Among them were the local young leader of Fridays for Future, Selma de Montgomery, the artist Olafur Eliasson, editor-in-chief Rune Lykkeberg and the young philosopher Esther Kjeldahl Michelsen.
The conversation series was a reaction to how the generational divide has fast become one of the most notable in our societies and social lives. For the past two years, the kids and youth behind Fridays For Future have made us all understand that in a time of escalating climate change impact, the generational divide is as strong as it is articulated. We wanted to give those voices a platform to talk and explain beyond “let’s hear from the kid in the interview”. And we wanted to give them an opportunity to have an open and frank conversation with another generation of leaders, who have tackled sustainability in the way they saw fit.
Since the beginning of the recordings, I have been smitten by how meaningful this generational lens is today. To me it became clear during the talks that the difference in mindsets, we heard in Between Generations, could not only be explained by our guests being young and elder, by them being two different places in their lives. It was more than that. It has ties to how each generation has a shared story that also, not only, shapes our outlook. This shared story is an asset to share with other generations.
The conversation series is also an invitation to look into your own generation’s trademarks. And so, it inspired me to thoroughly look into my own, Millennials. We are the first generation to have lower income than our parents including fewer benefits like paid sick leave, pension etc. Add to this that we have more debt and own less than our parents. Entering the workforce during the recession in the late 00s and early 10s, and smitten by the gig-economy and the Silicon Valley praise of entrepreneurial lifestyle, we just didn’t get a hold of wealth, security and stability in the same way. We have probably ventured into more dream projects like startups, artists careers and travels of the world than our parents did. The blessing of being raised long after the shadows of world wars and before the great recession and the age of terror, climate change and pandemics. Surely, something to think about.
If you are interested, Pew Research Institute has a vault of well researched generational studies that I can highly recommend. You can find the different generational studies via this index .
Gen Z: A Generation of ‘Enforcement Rebels’
The stories I heard between the generations were hopeful, solution-oriented but also real, tough and unsentimental about the changes coming.
Among Generation Z’s university and elementary school students, young entrepreneurs and media professionals, we met young adults with a no-bullshit attitude towards climate change. None were waiting for a tech fix, none had the idea that they with a company venture or a plastic free product alone could change the world. The solutions for these coming leaders were as real as they were unsentimental: We can only fix this collectively as a societal group and only within existing governmental institutions and political decision making.
I called this a ‘well-behaved rebellion’ in one of the conversations. I don’t mean this as a generation that doesn’t dare to break with norms. I mean it as an observation about a group of young adults, who acknowledge that we don’t have time to burn institutions to the ground, test new ideas and in turn build better institutions. Instead they demand of the current systems and politicians that they step up, deliver on their promises and serve with responsibility on behalf of the coming generations, who will feel the consequences. Perhaps a better nickname could have been ‘The enforcement rebels’: A generation that reminds us all who and what we serve, when we fill out positions of power in our society. The rehearsed “do-gooder stump speeches” are not free-bees with the Gen Z generation. And I personally really liked that about all of our young conversation guests in Between Generations. What a straight forward, no-bullshit attitude!
This is covered in particular in the meeting between editor-in-chief and Gen X, Rune Lykkeberg, and event manager at World’s Best News, political operator and Gen Z, Clara Halvorsen.
Big and Small Generational Impact
Most generations have seen an uprising of some kinds. But fewer have seen that uprising grab hold of our public opinion in the shape of a media or political party, and hereby translate support into a position of influence. The baby boomer generation’s welfare movement certainly did convert their support into political power. The youth rebellion of the 60s led to an astonishing breaking with norms and strong new cultural manifestations. Looking at the squatter revolt (‘BZ’ in Danish) in the 80s, however, they never really translated their mission into the broader public opinion. It will be interesting to see what Fridays for Future and related students movements will create of political candidates and organisations, opinion makers, media initiatives etc. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for these young leaders, we met this fall.
Your Shopping Cart Makes no Difference, but Our Community Does
How often have you been debating meatless days and the shame of flying? I think we have all been invited to form an opinion about what actions we as citizens should do — and what actions that actually make a difference.
And therefore, it was surprising to learn how the young sustainability leaders looked beyond this question. We met a group of young leaders, who didn’t see climate change as an individual responsibility. It must be a collective action and it must be anchored in our companies, institutions, culture and communities. This is not a crisis we can just consume our way out of. The changes needed are much bigger than that. Therefore we also heard very little of the “old” optimism of inventing new solutions, starting a company venture, building a new product. These radical changes best happen in our local communities, where everyone can take part in the work. This, you can hear much more about in the conversation between community leaders of two generations: 26 years-old Esther Kjeldahl, philosopher and member of GSB, and 61 years-old Søren Hermansen, CEO of Samsø Energy Academy.
Also very interesting to me, was how we met a generation of young leaders preparing themselves for change in a very different way than my own generation and older do. A generation that is focused on talking about more than innovation and politis, but also sharing a language to process the fear and overall emotions that come with saying goodbye to our current way of living. And to understand that climate and nature as we know it right now will change. This appears in all conversations — for instans 15 years-old Selma de Montgomery’s, Fridays For Future, conversation with 53 years-old artist Olafur Eliasson.
Also, it is well described in Esther Kjeldahl’s book, which so far is only in Danish: Vi er samme om at mærke det.
Advice from Gen X and Baby Boomers: Don’t agree too much
And these young leaders went away from their meetings with insights and advice from older generations and their many years of working for sustainable transformation — including all the wins and all the failures that come with being experienced.
One advice that I took note of was community leader and Baby Boomer, Søren Hermansen, as he said: Don’t agree too much. Let it be ok to disagree. We are on our way into a world and a climate, we don’t know. Stay open and keep discussing and listening to everyone as we find our pathways.
To me that hit a challenge in our time of echo chambers and fear of being ‘canceled’ for atypical thinking. The idea of sustainability was itself perceived leftwing and alternative decades ago, when it was introduced. Today, from where I sit here in Copenhagen Denmark, it is more likely to be perceived as radical if you dismiss sustainability.
The world renowned artist and Gen X Olafur Eliasson shared, in his conversation with Selma de Montgomery from Fridays for Future, this beautiful advice and observation:
“Walk into the future face forward, and not with your back to it. This idea that some things were easier or better in the 70s, doesn’t help us. Walking into the future face forward is hopeful, and hope is a rare currency in the adult world (…) You and Fridays for Future are in fact very generous with your teachings. Your notion of we’ness is very inspiring. You are building a new kind of ‘we’ that go across the borders that adults are normally so obsessed with; National, political and religious borders. Children are much better at letting the wind blow across the land. It is very giving.”
Find all four conversations here (two in English and two in Danish), and please drop me a note with feedback and ideas for sustainability leaders, young and old, we should think of: Marie@gorvild.com
Happy Holidays to all the generations out there!
Host, Between Generations