Why Generation Z Won’t be Silenced on Climate Change

Young environmentalists are protesting politician’s failure to tackle global warming. Here's how they’re holding us all to account

In Victorian times, the younger generation was supposed to be seen and not heard. The contrast with today’s young people could not be starker. 

A prime example of this is Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, who has been holding a school strike outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday for the last few months, to protest about the global failure to tackle climate change.  She has inspired tens of thousands of other students around the world to follow her example. 

Thunberg caused a sensation by telling the world’s climate negotiators in 2018 that they were failing her generation. "You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” she said. "Even that burden you leave to us children.”

This is Generation Z, those born after 1995. Tech-savvy, well-informed and opinionated, they are holding their elders to account with a discomforting clarity. This is going to have a profound effect on the business world, the labour market and politics – the oldest of this generation are already in the workplace, many of them are engaged with civil society and they want answers. They don’t like the world that they are being bequeathed – a world of populist politics, climate change and resource scarcity – and they are not afraid to apportion blame.

Gen Zers’ outlook is coloured by the experience of living through the 2008 financial crisis, says David Stillman, who, with his Gen Z son Jonah, is the author of Gen Z @ Work, How The Next Generation Is Transforming The Workplace. “Their dinnertime conversations were not about endless opportunities and ‘you can be anything you want to be’, like millennials’ were – they were about survival.”

Millennials’ formative years were in the 1990s, when the internet was just taking off and the economy was doing great, giving them an optimistic outlook, Stillman says. Gen Zers grew up in more uncertain times and are therefore more pragmatic and realistic, he adds. 

As Thunberg illustrates, they are not just moaning about their lot, either. They are taking inspiration from each other and collaborating to create massive global coalitions of activists highlighting the issues that they care about.

Thunberg has said that she was galvanized by the survivors of the shooting at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, in February last year, who, in the face of a tragedy that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers, created a national movement, March For Our Lives, to raise awareness about gun control and increase voter registration among the young.

They have been hugely effective, too. At the start of this year, the House of Representatives introduced two bills on gun control, for the first time in two decades, while youth turnout at the 2018 mid-term elections increased by 10 percent on the 2014 election. This is cause and effect in action – increased numbers of young people voting led to a number of gun control advocates being elected to Congress, enabling them to draft the bills. On top of that, a number of states also tightened gun laws.

Now Thunberg herself is the inspiration – climate strikes have drawn tens of thousands of students onto the streets in cities across Europe, and in Japan and Australia. 

We just need adults to understand they need to do something

In the US, the movement has been slower to take off, but many American students took part in the global strike on March 15. Activities were co-ordinated by the US Youth Climate Group, started by 12-year-old Haven Coleman from Colorado. “I saw what was going on with Greta and I wanted to get kids involved over here, since the adults are not doing anything,” she says. “We just need adults to understand they need to do something.”

The way the protests are being organized tells you a lot about Gen Z and how technology helps to define them. “Generation Z has never known a world where their phone is not smart. They are digital natives and they just assume the technology will be there,” says Stillman. While older generations are still a bit dazzled by smartphones, which after all are little more than a decade old, Gen Z don’t get excited about it. “It’s what you do with it that counts,” says Stillman.

Extinction Rebellion flag

In that spirit, Coleman reached out via social media to other students involved in their own individual climate strikes, such as Isra Hirsi, 15, from Minnesota, and Alexandria Villasenor, 13, who has been protesting outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, and a movement was born. “Coleman reached out to me via Instagram, where she followed me, and asked if I wanted to help organise a national school strike,” says Hirsi, matter-of-factly. 

“We feel let down by older generations,” says Hirsi, whose mother, Ilhan Omar, was one of those elected to the House of Representatives in the mid-terms. “I should not be made responsible, as a 15-year-old, for having to fight for my life when the adults should have recognised and tackled this problem earlier.”

At the same time, she says, “just because I’m a high school student, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to advocate for my life – because no-one else will do it for me”.

We’re not going to let them ruin our generation. We won’t let them hand us down a broken world

Villasenor, who started her protest after seeing at first hand the impact of last year’s devastating wildfires in California, says Thunberg made young people realise they do have power to make a difference. “We’re not going to let them ruin our generation. We won’t let them hand us down a broken world,” she adds.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole says that there are clear differences between Gen Z and older generations, in terms of both culture and their approach to technology. “We’re more connected to the outside world than any generation before us. We tweet American presidents and play FIFA with Japan. We do not see borders in the same way as previous generations do. So the idea of limiting our ability to explore the continent that's cheapest for us to get to goes against our core values.” 

At the same time, he adds: “Certain principles relating to equality and acceptance that were seen as debatable before, are the core concrete values of our generation,” he says.

The shape of a generation normally evolves over time as its members feed through into the workplace and popular culture. But it feels like Gen Z have arrived fully-formed, ready to change the world before they even get out of school.

This has consequences far beyond the realm of climate strikes – including for the world of business. Companies looking to sell to, and employ, Generation Z need to be authentic. We are in a post-CSR era where a corporation’s responsibility is its strategy. Paying lip service to issues such as climate change and gun control is no longer acceptable. If you’re going to make claims about how you’re changing the world, you’d better actually be doing it or you will be found out and held to account, just as political leaders are being held to account by a generation of youth activists.