An Ode To Anti-Ageism in a Time of COVID and Climate Change

Eben Bein is the New England Field Coordinator. He previously taught biology in public and private schools in MA and NH, and is currently quarantined in his childhood intergenerational cohousing neighborhood with his two parents, brother, and cat. FB/T: @beinology

* The following photos of intergenerational cooperation at Our Climate events were taken by New England Field Representative Elisa Figueras and older ally Susan Yao.


The media missed an important subtext of the TX Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s recent, irresponsible comments. His claim that people over 70 want to risk their lives so the rest of the country can get back to work show alarming similarities to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent threat to visit NYC public parks himself and scold young people for disregarding social distancing. It’s even reminiscent of the refrain on some young people’s lips: #OKBoomer. 

Despite our many efforts to dismantle systems of oppression--classism, racism, sexism, ableism--we still have a blind spot for ageism. Ageist ideas are taking the spotlight right when the young are experiencing unprecedented disruption to their education, guidance, and critical support services and Italian officials are so strapped for ventilators that they are forced to leave their oldest patients to die. We need to meet this moment with anti-ageist language that reinforces the solidarity between the old, the young, and everyone in between. If we get it right, the language will carry us through the battle with COVID-19 and empower us to address the climate disruption looming on the horizon. 

Scholar and policy analyst Ibrahm X. Kendi argues that oppressive “isms” are powered by unscientific ideas that lump people together into monolithic groups. When Lt. Governor Patrick speaks on behalf of 70-plus-year-olds, he treats them as a monolith and thus expresses an ageist idea. When Governor Cuomo uses the ageist trope of the “carefree, irresponsible youth” to scapegoat a generation for a disaster that is no generation’s fault, he is expressing an ageist idea. When some young people roll their eyes and shout #OKBoomer at people who seem to disregard their future, they are challenging an ageist system with yet another ageist idea.

To be clear, I’m not asking Governor Cuomo to just let people, many of whom are young, frolic in the parks during a pandemic. I am asking him to enforce safety with language that acknowledges and celebrates the less visible majority of young people who are making the right choice to quarantine. Not only is this approach anti-ageist, but more effective; behavioral economics shows that people are more responsive to the social pressure of celebrating the majority’s choice than shaming.

Similarly, boomer-blaming youth to just lie down in the face of countless decades-old energy policies that prioritize profits over the planet. But they will build a stronger movement with nuanced language that does not erase our countless older allies. 

I argue this as a 33-year-old climate solutions educator with an immunocompromised parent. I build intergenerational coalitions professionally, while living them personally. I am currently helping hundreds of youth leaders who spent months preparing for the largest climate strike in world history (#EarthDay2020) to dig deep, reinvent their tactics, and bring their public demonstrations online. We are doing this via Zoom to stay aligned with the ethical underpinnings of the Green New Deal--to protect the most vulnerable among us, including the old. Countless older climate activists are joining us in digital spaces, not only for their own work, but to support, empower, and learn from young people. 

This is to say nothing of the climate organizers of all ages who are dedicating time, resources and skills to directly address COVID-19, the anti-ageist policies that let old people grocery shop at different times, or the free video-conferencing tools being provided to keep students, teachers, and counselors connected. In short, the world is thrumming with intergenerational agape. 

To survive, we must use anti-ageist language that augments that spirit and celebrates our willingness to be there for each other across ages. We need more young people to comply with rules of quarantine. We need more old people to see the many youth who are upending their lives for the well-being of the old. We need more old people to prepare to upend their lives in the fight against climate change. We must use our voices to rise together through this crisis and emerge strong enough to take on the next. 

 


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