The great age divide in environmentalism

How age differences affect environmental groups

Sierra Club Student Coalition members
Photo courtesy of Sierra Club Student Coalition

Research has shown that younger generations, specifically Millennials — those born after 1980 — are more supportive of environmental legislation, if only by a small margin. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Millennials supported more environmental laws, while 54 percent of Baby Boomers felt the same way. The age gap among people who work for environmental groups allows for new viewpoints and experiences to be shared, but it sometimes can cause issues.

Many of those Millenials get their start getting skills and experience in environmental advocacy by joining a student organization. For example, young people who get involved with the Sierra Club often do so through the Sierra Student Coalition. There are also numerous groups on college campuses.

“Typically our student staff are very interested and passionate — but they don’t have a ton of experience yet,” says Marianne Martin, associate director of the University of Colorado Boulder Environmental Center.


The Environmental Center, founded in 1970, has professional employees on staff and employs students. The center focuses mostly on “peer-to-peer education” and “lifestyle training,” Martin says. Students teach other students what they can in their everyday lives to help improve the environment, like recycling and alternative transportation methods.

Kim Lovell, 26, program director at the Sierra Club, says the organization is working to draw assets from both ends of the age spectrum.

“Younger people have the energy — the spark and passion — they are the Energizer bunnies,” Lovell says. “The older folks have the experience. They have seen what has worked and what hasn’t worked.”

The Sierra Club, which was founded by John Muir in 1892 — when Muir himself was in his 50s — reports that 80 percent of club members are over the age of 50.

“I think sometimes when something is just a youth movement or just being pushed on behalf of an older generation, it doesn’t have as much success as when there is intergenerational agreement,” Lovell says. “That is an issue we need to work on.”

Occasionally, tensions can arise in cross-generational efforts.

“Ageism can really plague movements,” says Hava Gordon, an associate professor at the University of Denver who studies social inequalities in race, class, gender and age. “It is a kind of inequality that we don’t recognize in our society that can really be deployed when older folks take over. It can be alienating. There has to be room for young people to lead the movement.”

Sometimes, adults set up a project in a top-down style, then try to “plug youth in” to the project, she says.

“That is where the conflict can arise — when young people are tokenized instead of being the visionaries of the movement,” Gordon says. “We see this in city youth councils and some forms of student government, where students are the figureheads but they don’t really hold much of the decision-making power.”

In the end, Lovell says, youth will have to lead social movements for them to have a future: “Every movement needs a new youth group to carry on our message.”