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9th October 2019

We’re only ‘children’ when middle-aged men don’t like our ideas

Dismissing the ideas and activism of people like Greta Thunberg because of their age shows how older generations only pick and choose when to treat teenagers like adults, argues Kate Jackson
We’re only ‘children’ when middle-aged men don’t like our ideas
Greta Thunberg. Photo: Anders Hellberg @wikimediacommons

Greta Thunberg has been at the receiving end of seething middle-aged fury since her appearance at the United Nations climate summit. Her speech to world leaders condemned their sluggish approach to climate change and labelled their inaction a betrayal of young people. Thunberg is pushing for vital change that is extremely time-sensitive, yet many sought to attack her age rather than take heed of her warnings.

Jeremy Clarkson is one in a long line of baby-boomers – Piers Morgan being another – who think Thunberg should go back to school. In the case of Clarkson, he believes that Thunberg missing out on school is the real detriment to the climate change effort because it is the science, and the science lessons she is ‘missing’, that will resolve the issue, not speeches.

This argument from Clarkson is quite ironic given his annual results day tweet that boasts of all the money he has despite his poor exam results. His argument also implies that scientists are being given all the help that they need to solve the climate crisis, when, in reality, their warnings are ignored on almost a daily basis. Hence, Thunberg’s intervention.

It is also worrying that Clarkson believes that Thunberg has no right to ‘lecture’ the generation who have given us – the younger generation – the internet, social media, and the technology with which to use it. We should not, in their opinion, challenge our elders because they have bestowed on us so many important ideas and inventions. Never mind the problems with the economy, the environment or the growing social division that they have caused. In their eyes, we will (eventually) get to deal with these issues when we are ‘old enough’ – but by then it may be too late.

It would, perhaps, be easier to ‘respect our elders’, and wait to speak up about the problems of the world, if baby-boomers didn’t pick and choose when to treat us like adults. They don’t mind us making the decision to be saddled with (at least) thirty grand of debt at the age of seventeen; getting married and having children at sixteen (or younger depending on where you are); or even joining the army (you can start the application process in the UK at fifteen years and 7 months old). These life-altering decisions are fine to make before we reach the age of eighteen, and are encouraged in some cases, but heaven forbid we vote in a referendum that is going to disproportionately affect us.

Our age, lack of life-experience, or ‘immaturity’ only becomes relevant when we are saying something that they don’t like.

Perhaps, some might argue, that in criticising Thunberg (or other teenage activists) they are treating her, and her ideas, seriously and aren’t mollycoddling her. Calling someone a ‘spoilt brat’ and telling them to shut up like a ‘good girl’ – as Clarkson did in his column piece – is not legitimate criticism, however. The use of this condescending and, in this case, sexist language towards a teenage activist is not evidence of good critical engagement. Language such as this is being used only to demean Thunberg and call attention to her age as a way to belittle the work she is doing.

It is important to note that, while it is an uphill struggle, Greta Thunberg’s efforts – and that of other young climate change activists, such as Extinction Rebellion – are, in fact, making a difference. Following Thunberg’s speech at the UN, climate change scientists spoke about the difference her campaign is making, the momentum the movement is gaining and, most importantly, their belief that climate change warnings are finally being listened to in a serious way.

In America, the survivors of the 2017 mass-shooting in Parkland have experienced a similar uphill struggle in their attempts to push for stronger gun-control laws. Not only is gun-control a notoriously dividing issue in America, but the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school have also had to struggle to be heard as teenage activists. Despite this, their committee group Never Again MSD had, at their March for Our Lives campaign in 2018, hundreds of thousands of people marching in protest of gun violence. Their efforts led to the passing of a gun-control bill in Florida – raising the minimum age for buying firearms to 21 – which was named in honour of their activism. This was the first time in thirty years that Florida had passed any laws restricting access to guns.

Whether or not middle-aged men are taking teenage activists seriously; whether or not they are pointing to age in order to avoid having a serious discussion about the issues we are facing; or whether or not they are just being controversial for the sake of it – the rest of us are taking these activists seriously, and they are making a difference whether the likes of Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson like it or not.

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