Clad in a beige trenchcoat, 73-year-old Jenny Condit stands out amongst the shoppers crowding a busy high street corner in the south of England. As she distributes leaflets decrying financial corporations’ financing of the fossil fuel industry, her fellow activists — members of the climate action group Extinction Rebellion, or XR — take over a local Barclays bank behind her.
From inside the building’s windows, they stand holding placards: This bank funds fossil fuels! Barclays are climate criminals! Move your money!
Activism is typically the preserve of the young. The average age of a professional activist in the U.S. is 40. People under 40 are more likely to be involved in political activism like protests and demonstrations than their older counterparts, according to a global study by Orb Media.
But it’s not just young people who have the passion and energy to campaign for change. Even while Gen Z activists such as Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and the Sunrise Movement’s youth leaders grab the limelight, a “silver generation” of older climate action advocates is fighting to protect the planet for the next generation.
“Being a grandparent informs what I do,” says Condit, a retired banker. The grandmother of two lives in the town of Haslemere, about 40 miles southwest of London. “It just added a certain ability to see the future. You sort of see the future through your grandchildren’s eyes.”
Campaigning in one’s later years can give seniors a sense of purpose, says Glasgow University lecturer and activist-turned-academic Karen Bell, who researches environmental justice groups.
“People in the last section of life get concerned with legacy,” she explains. Many older activists, she notes, are prompted by a simple question: “What am I leaving behind for my grandchildren?”
A 2020 Ipsos study found that 20% of Britons aged 55 or older had engaged in activism around environmental issues, from fundraising for environmental groups to joining one themselves. One such group is Extinction Rebellion’s spin-off, XR Grandparents, which launched in 2019 with a pledge to “take our place in history, and ensure there is a history.” The group kicked off with members locking themselves onto the gates of Buckingham Palace in London, where they were then arrested.
Many older activists are prompted by a simple question: “What am I leaving behind for my grandchildren?”
“So that surprised everybody,” says Condit, a member of XR Grandparents. “The police were still learning how to deal with Extinction Rebellion, and I’m sure they saw us as not a particularly threatening crowd — all the gray hairs.”
For more than two decades, Condit worked for the global financial giant JPMorgan — one of the biggest funders of fossil fuels — clocking 60 hours a week as a managing director, while traveling and raising her children.
In 1999, she retired, leaving the fast-paced and high-pressure environment to pursue a life of activism. As a full-time volunteer, she engaged in political campaigns for U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and President Barack Obama after that.
Age is no barrier to her continued door-to-door and streets corner campaigning for climate causes. She’s even protested outside of her old employer’s building in London. One of her grandkids proudly wears an XR hoodie, she says.
Like so many other senior activists, Condit’s continued efforts are motivated by the thought of her grandchildren’s future.
“I’d like to be a small part of the change in what is going to be their life,” she says. Her son’s kids, ages 6 and 3, are fascinated by plants and animals. She hopes that they, as well as their children and grandchildren, will still be able to experience the beauty of the natural world throughout their lives.
“I did not want my grandchildren to suffer the extraordinary deprivations which I think are going to happen.”
Rocking chair rebels
Across the pond, thousands of seniors rallied for climate action in March in more than 100 locations around the United States — dubbing themselves the “Rocking Chair Rebellion.”
Third Act, the climate action collective for people over 60 that sponsored the rallies, uses bank takeovers to raise awareness about climate change. Through these historic mass demonstrations, the “youthful climate movement” is getting some “backup from old people like me,” co-founder Bill McKibben said at a recent Earth Day discussion panel. “There are 70 million Americans over the age of 60 and they have most of the country’s financial resources too. So it’s useful to have some people with hairlines like mine engaged in this work.”
Older activists are a powerful political force in the U.S., Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Alan Fine writes in his new book Fair Share: Senior Activism, Tiny Publics, and the Culture of Resistance.
In large part, that’s because of the greater time and resources they have over their younger counterparts. But seniors’ power as activists also comes from having a longer memory. Not only can they recall nature as it once was, they remember the vibrance and success of previous social movements.
“For a 25-year-old, everything is new, it’s never happened before,” he says. “Seniors who remember the feminist movements of the ’70s, civil rights movements, fighting against state-sponsored segregation and issues of pollution — these things have come back.”
As a cultural sociologist who examines the creation of group cultures, Fine argues that the older generation comprises a strong advocacy group in the U.S. — and that it holds great capacity for creating change.
“There is some nostalgia to remembering your young self,” Fine says. “Some of them have been activists all their lives, some were activists as young people, then went to raise kids, have regular lives. And now they can come back.”
Other older activists are inspired by an epiphany, he says. “What can you do when retired? You can now fight for social justice that you never had time or energy for before.”
But being an older activist has its physical limitations, Fine points out. That can present a challenge for these activists and the movements seeking to include their voices.
“When you want to incorporate senior activists into a larger social movement, you need bathroom breaks, you need to make sure there’s enough food and various requirements for people with diabetes and other requirements, you need spaces for canes and wheelchairs and so forth,” he says.
While seniors may often have more time and resources than young activists, they may lack energy and stamina. Most seniors can’t walk a mile in freezing rain or a heat wave.
“But they still have enough energy that they can make a difference.”
Repairing damage done
On the split screen with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, then-15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg didn’t mince words. Nor did she shy away from pointing fingers.
“We must hold the older generations accountable for the mess they have created and expect us to live with, and say to them that you cannot continue risking our future like this,” Thunberg said in the 2018 interview. “We need to get angry, and then we need to transform that anger into action.”
Some older climate activists bristle at such rhetoric. Bell, who authored a book on inclusive environmentalism, refutes the idea that the current crisis is the fault of the older generation.
“It is [our fault] to the extent that we haven’t made enough of an issue of the environmental crises,” accepts Bell, who declined to share her age but considers herself an older person. But older generations had a far smaller ecological footprint, as they did not fly as much or replace technologies so regularly, she says. “[Thunberg] shouldn’t talk about it in an age-related way. It is more a problem of a capitalist society and the elites who make the policies.”
Activist Suzanne Everest, 63, from the town of Godalming 40 miles south of central London, says she bears a sense of responsibility for “this awful situation” with climate change.
“It’s during my working adult lifetime that the worst of this has happened,” she reflects, standing alongside Condit at an XR-led environmental protest in central London. “I feel that I have been unknowingly perhaps complicit in creating this situation.”
Her generation “should face up to that and do as much as we can to repair that,” she says. “I think people of all ages should be involved. And I certainly don’t think we should just leave it to the young. We have responsibility. At our age, we’ve got more experience and we should use that experience to try and make a difference.”
Retired physician Robert Oulton, 69, was also there protesting with XR outside of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Like the other activists there — nearly all of whom were over 50 years old — he was protesting the government’s decision to allow a private company to drill for oil and gas exploration in Dunsfold, a village in the south English countryside.
“It’s absolutely crazy in this day and age, when we know the risks of climate change, we’re actually planning to drill for gas and oil in an area of outstanding natural beauty,” he says.
An appeal was scheduled after the government overturned a local council’s decision to ban fracking in the village, about 50 miles from his home.
“Whatever age you are, you’re going to be impacted by climate change,” Oulton says. “I may be dead by the time the worst happens, but my descendants and my extended family and my friends will all be affected. So there isn’t any opt-out just by being over 60.”
Clive Teague, a 74-year-old retired structural engineer who traveled 40 miles from Farnham to join the XR rally, says he worries about his children and four grandchildren.
“I care for the turmoil and the disruption that’s going to come their way when climate change becomes even worse,” he says. “They’ve got to live through … the worst period in the history of the world.”
Throughout her life, Condit’s beliefs sat at the liberal end of the political spectrum. She was an early adopter of green technologies like solar panels and hybrid cars. Unlike most of her colleagues at JPMorgan, she opposed the wars in the Middle East, including both Iraq wars in 1990 and 2003.
But she never knew of an organization that was really making a difference.
“And then Extinction Rebellion went off like a rocket,” she says. “It was like a firework, that extraordinary level of awareness building.”
The U.K.-based climate change activism group, also called XR, began in 2018 when 1,500 people gathered outside of the British Parliament to announce a “Declaration of Rebellion.” The group warned of “mass extinction” due to a climate emergency in which the government was, it believed, “wilfully complicit.”
XR has since become a global movement known for its tactics of civil disobedience and public disruption, attempting to attract attention by blocking roads, taking over buildings, climbing oil tankers and trying to get arrested.
“I saw a placard once that said ‘Grandad, what did you do when you knew?’ And I want to make sure I can say what I did.”
In 2018, on a train home from London, Condit read in a newspaper that XR had closed off five London bridges, practically bringing the city to a standstill. “I said, ‘Wow, I need to be a part of that,’” she recalls. She attended her first XR event with her children, now in their 30s.
The organization has faced criticism in the past for its unconventional and disruptive methods of raising awareness, as well as for its majority white, middle-class membership that alienates ethnic minorities and working-class people.
“Well, embarrassing, I find it against my nature,” Teague says of some of XR’s disruption tactics as he quietly holds aloft an XR banner on the side of the street. “I find all sorts of conflicts about doing that, but it’s the only way to get it noticed.”
“I saw a placard once that said ‘Grandad, what did you do when you knew?’ And I want to make sure I can say what I did,” he says.
Older people, senior XR activists say, are able to take advantage of that fact that they seem less threatening to the police, meaning they face less risk to themselves in using these disruptive tactics.
As someone who has a secure pension with his mortgage paid off, Oulton – the retired doctor — believes he is in a better position than younger activists.
“My risks of getting arrested or getting into trouble with direct action are probably less than younger people,” says Oulton. “So are the risks of getting into financial and legal jeopardy.”
In January, XR made waves when it announced that the group is moving away from disruptive tactics. “XR is committed to including everyone in this work and leaving no one behind, because everyone has a role to play,” the group announced. “This year, we prioritize attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks, as we stand together and become impossible to ignore.”
It’s a strategic shift that will almost certainly make the group more welcoming for seniors interested in less-confrontational climate action. Still, any risks to themselves or disruption to the public would still be worth the cost, these senior activists believe.
“The disruption of drought and fire and flood, of lack of food is so enormous by comparison to the disruption that we cause,” Condit says. “The harm that we are causing is very small by comparison to the harm we’re trying to prevent.”