Look out! Here come The Elders…

Jun 12, 2023

There is rising wrath, out there in Elderland. The Elders, it seems, are no longer happy to look on as a bunch of corporates and their political stooges pillage the planet and lay waste to their grandchildren’s future. With growing resolve, resources and organisation, older people are fighting back.

Rather than sitting meekly in their retirement homes, the elders are getting out there, getting themselves arrested and gaoled, making their opinions felt by the politicians and plutocrats who have ignored them for half a century.

This isn’t the ‘grey power’ or ‘ageivism’ that was once talked about. For one thing, the focus isn’t on themselves, their pensions and comforts – it’s on their children and grandchildren, the parlous state of the planet and its ability to support life, the ruined world that is being handed to the youngsters to try to survive on.

Retirees are radicalising in a global movement to rescue the human future. People who have spent a lifetime being ‘good citizens’ have had enough. More and more are realising that the legacy now being left to future generations is the most accursed in history – a world with a ruined climate, landscape, oceans, air; vanishing species of plants and animals; scarcities of water, trees, soils, fish; spreading chemical poisons; new disease pandemics; a teetering global food supply; an imminent nuclear peril; and a human species with an unlimited capacity for self-deception about the crisis it has engendered.

The anger has been brewing a while. Back in 2011, it was NASA scientist James Hansen, the man who brought the world its clarion climate warning, being whisked off to gaol for defending his grandchildren. He was just one of a thousand arrested at that demo against tar sands developments.

Then it was actress Jane Fonda, aged 82 and twice arrested in various climate protests, along with veteran actresses Sally Field and Lily Tomlin.

Of course, Greta Thunberger’s School Strikers have successfully roused the rising generation of global citizens, along with Extinction Rebellion and similar groups. They, after all, are the heirs to this global mega-tragedy. But behind the youngsters, now being arrested and gaoled in their thousands in Britain, the United States, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Australia, Sweden, India – even in Russia and China, where being a climate activist is very dangerous – is a rising movement of Elders, joining hands and risking their freedom alongside their children and grandchildren.

Part of the motivation is a rising fury that our courts and police forces – supposedly created to defend society, its rights and freedoms – are being universally conscripted to do the dirty work of the $7 trillion fossil fuels lobby, insidiously tightening its control over governments democratic, autocratic and in-between.

Slowly, steadily, an international protest movement is taking shape among older people, fuelled by shared outrage on social media. Ideas and protest methods are flying back and forth at lightspeed between different but likeminded groups, across the age cohorts as well as national and cultural borders.

The evidence for a politically active and engaged Elderhood is all over the internet, on Facebook, Twitter, Get-Up and Avaaz, and in retiree groups like U3A and SEE-Change, as wise and experienced minds contemplate the catastrophic mix of climate, extinction, toxic pollution, militarisation, resource scarcity, society-wide surveillance and resurgent authoritarianism in place of democracy.

In Australia, the Knitting Nannas is an “international disorganisation where people come together to ensure that our land, air and water are preserved for our children and grandchildren. We sit, knit, plot, have a yarn and a cuppa, and bear witness to the war against the greedy, short-sighted corporations that are trying to rape our land and divide our communities.”

On the global scene, the Raging Grannies is “an international group of social activists made up of older women who use playful energy, song, creativity and humour to protest and increase awareness of issues related to social justice, environmental sustainability, women’s rights, and more.”

The rebellion by The Elders isn’t a revolt of the disempowered. It’s far bigger, and much more potent, than that – but just as disillusioned and angry with political inertia and the mess that corruption, corporate greed and laissez-faire economics are making of the present and future.

Australia began the current century with 12 per cent of its population aged 65 or over: by 2030 it will be 20 per cent – about 5 million people. These are, according to HILDA (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia), the richest cohort in the country. They are literate, experienced, time-rich, educated and enfranchised. They understand politics. Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly parents and grandparents – who know their grandkids are getting a very rough deal indeed.

Politicians and corporate executives should tremble. How the Baby Boomers vote, buy, invest or disinvest decides the fate of governments and businesses in Australia – and globally. If the Elders conclude your product or policy is harmful to their grandkids, they can inflict a lot of damage on shareholder value, corporate reputation or political majorities.

Currently there are a billion people aged 60 and over worldwide, according to the UN. This number is expected to double by the mid-century. In Europe, North America and Australasia, Elders will make up a quarter of the population and a third of the voters. They will live, and exert influence, for 25 years or more beyond retirement. The disparaging characterisation of elders as apathetic and conservative is falling away in the light of harsh new realities: everything they have lived their lives for is under threat.

Here’s the thing: ethical Elders know their grandchildren are being handed a rough deal, a planet more damaged and dangerous, and a society less free, fair, safe, healthy, just and equal, than they themselves enjoyed. More and more, they are putting their voices, brains and financial power behind things like renewable energy, clean-up campaigns, political pressure for wildlife and landscape restoration, safer food, better healthcare, opposition to war and militarism, and a renewal of trust and investment in those pillars of modern society, education and science.

The phenomenon of the billionaire-turned-philanthropist is well known – after a lifetime of rapacious accumulation, a deathbed (or thereabouts) crisis of conscience transforms the accumulator into a social benefactor. What’s happening with the Elders is equally profound but far more significant, because it is occurring across a whole generation and a planet, not just among a few individuals.

Climate campaigner Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org has also set up The Third Act, a group of elder climate activists, who recently staged protests in 90 locations across the USA. Their manifesto states “We are building a community of Americans over the age of sixty determined to change the world for the better. Together, we use our life experience, skills, and resources to build a better tomorrow.” One of the things they do, most effectively, is threaten banks who fund fossil fuels with the loss of their money.

“Older people have got money and structural power coming out of our ears,” says McKibben, who is 62. “We have to show young people we have their back. We are the first generation to leave the world in a worse place than we found it.”

Another potent dynamic in the activism of the Elders is that many of the movement’s leaders are women. People who have been politically powerless and voiceless most of their lives are rising with new-found confidence, will and determination to try to save their grandchildren, to go where men are often too timid and compliant to dare. Women are rising up, as leaders of the new world, to rescue the human future.

It is a timeworn saying that young people are the future and the hope of our species. Now it is equally true that old people are, too.

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