Getting the growing population of older adults actively involved in issues of climate change requires moving away from a deficit- and loss-focused view of later adulthood. A new narrative should be adopted recognizing the many contributions older adults can make to addressing the climate crisis. These contributions arise out of concerns for the health and well-being of the next generations and draw on older adults’ legacy thinking, lifelong experiences, professional expertise, and ability to work in multigenerational contexts. Such a new narrative recognizes older adults as a “natural resource” and important “human capital.”
advocacy, engagement, generativity, legacy thinking, purpose, multigenerational, psychological well-being
Greater engagement of older adults (i.e., individuals beyond child-rearing age) in climate change advocacy and actions requires reframing the general aging narrative in U.S. society. Instead of the general public’s deficit and vulnerability perspective on aging a new narrative needs to highlight the many positive aspects that can come with growing older (Diehl et al., 2020). Moreover, this new narrative needs to emphasize that older adults represent a precious form of human capital (Rowe & Kahn, 2015) with the potential to contribute creatively and constructively to solving urgent societal problems, including those associated with climate change.
Reframing Aging as a Critical Aspect in the Context of Climate Change
Despite plenty of evidence supporting the concepts of behavioral plasticity in adult development (Staudinger, 2020) and successful aging (Rowe & Kahn, 2015), the U.S. public continues to hold mostly negative views of older adults as individuals and as a social group (Diehl et al., 2020). Three major misconceptions lie at the heart of the public’s negative views of aging: First, for most people, growing old(er) consists primarily of loss and decline. Second, changes that happen with aging are beyond a person’s control. Third, age-related losses, once they have occurred, are permanent and irreversible. These three misconceptions are often accompanied by a fourth, about older adults as a social group, namely: Older adults are all the same and are a burden on society.
Undoubtedly, very old age (i.e., ages 85 and older) holds unique challenges that often threaten individuals’ health, well-being, and quality of life (Baltes & Smith, 2003). However, a large body of evidence suggests that these three major misconceptions can be debunked for most adults in the age range of 60 to 80 (Diehl et al., 2020). It is by now well established that the increase in average life expectancy that occurred in the 20th century has not only added years to people’s lives, but many of those years tend to be disability-free years, resulting in an increased healthspan, too (Crimmins, 2015).
Similarly, longitudinal studies on adults’ cognitive development have shown that reliable age-related cognitive decline does not occur as early in adulthood as previously thought (Diehl et al., 2020; Staudinger, 2020). Furthermore, research on the effects of cognitive training and enriched environments has shown that there is a great deal of cognitive plasticity in adulthood, permitting many older adults to perform at fairly high levels of cognitive functioning (Staudinger, 2020).
Finally, older adults make significant productive contributions to U.S. society, not only in the workplace, but also in retirement. About 9 million adults older than age 65 serve as caregivers to an adult or child with functional impairment, and custodial grandparents care for about 3 million children in the United States (Diehl et al., 2020).
‘Longer lives and the active engagement of older adults in addressing urgent societal problems may represent a true “longevity dividend.” ’
Most of these caregiving activities are unpaid and the total economic value of caregiving by older adults is estimated to be more than $450 billion annually (Reinhard et al., 2019). In terms of volunteering, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that in 2016 about 25% of older adults volunteered in their communities, providing about 3.3 billion hours of service and producing economic value estimated at $77 billion (Diehl et al., 2020).
All these data indicate that older adults are not a burden on society but contribute in productive and meaningful ways (Gonzales et al., 2015). Thus, longer lives and the active engagement of older adults in addressing urgent societal problems may represent a true “longevity dividend,” not only for individuals but also for society at large (Diehl et al., 2020). Using such a new narrative may motivate older adults to get involved in climate change and sustainability activities.
Older Adults as Potential Key Players in Climate Change Issues
Although older adults are often exclusively described in terms of their vulnerability to the effects of global climate change (Rhoades et al., 2018), reframing their role and status based on the science about their capabilities and functioning can open a new vista. This vista shows that older adults can become key players in climate change and sustainability activities for several reasons.
First, consider older adults’ developmental stage and the developmental tasks associated with this life stage. Drawing on Erikson’s (1982) lifespan theory of psychological development, it is well documented that in late midlife and early old age, individuals become increasingly concerned about their generativity (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1998) and the legacy they may want to leave behind (Moody, 2009). Both developmental tasks can be expected to provide a strong motivational foundation for older adults to be concerned about climate change and to engage in actions that help to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
Legacy thinking (Frumkin et al., 2012) related to climate change, namely the desire to provide future generations with an unpolluted and healthy environment, can make older adults a particularly important group for environmental volunteering and civic engagement focused on climate change. Several studies have shown that inducing a legacy motivation in older adults can enhance their pro-environmental behaviors and intentions, such as being more inclined to make donations to an environmental cause or to change their climate change beliefs (Wickersham et al., 2020; Zaval et al., 2015).
Also, this legacy thinking may be of particular relevance to Baby Boomers, because as a generation known for its social activism and civic engagement, they may have a greater awareness of their behavior’s impact on a societal level. Environmental activism and civic engagement may be a topic that is more defining of Baby Boomers’ life course and life experiences than it has been for previous generations. In combination with the fact that middle-age and older adults are in many ways productive contributors to society (e.g., caregivers, volunteers, etc.), climate change may be another area ripe for their input and contributions.
A second major reason why older adults may be motivated to engage in advocacy and behavior supporting sustainability and climate change issues is that they commonly seek purpose and meaning in their lives. Purpose in life refers to feeling that there is meaning to the present, past, and future, having beliefs that make life purposeful (e.g., working for the common good), and having strong aims for living (Ryff, 1995). Studies building on socioemotional selectivity theory have shown that older adults prefer meaningful and emotionally rewarding social relationships over those that are primarily of instrumental value (Carstensen, 2021). To the extent that environmental volunteering can be linked to forging and maintaining meaningful and emotionally rewarding social relationships, volunteer programs (e.g., Retirees in Service to the Environment—RISE; Pillemer et al., 2017) may have great potential to attract older adults to their mission.
Similarly, research on psychological well-being in later life has shown that purpose in life is a major dimension of positive mental health (Pinquart, 2002; Ryff, 1995) and that volunteering can promote a sense of purpose in life and physical and mental health. Research on the benefits of volunteering has shown that for many older adults the commitment to volunteering gives them a greater sense of purpose and is often reported as making them feel needed (Anderson et al., 2014). Moreover, these effects also have been documented for older adults who participate in environmental volunteering (Pillemer et al., 2010). Thus, the motives of leaving behind a positive legacy and living a life that has purpose and meaning represent another building block in older adults’ motivation to become engaged in issues of climate change.
‘Older adults carry a wealth of personal, professional, and cultural knowledge that can be meaningfully applied to the area of climate change.’
In addition, older adults carry a wealth of personal, professional, and cultural knowledge that can be meaningfully applied to the area of climate change. Although there are many negative stereotypes about the competence and productivity of older adult workers, it is well-documented that older workers are as productive and capable of using technology as younger workers (Diehl et al., 2020). The retirement of highly trained and highly experienced older workers in certain industries (e.g., the energy industry) may leave a void that cannot be filled with younger workers and, hence, may have a direct environmental impact. Thus, older workers and retirees with a wealth of lifelong professional experience should be viewed as a form of human and social capital (Diehl et al., 2020) that can be drawn on to address the challenges associated with climate change.
Furthermore, older adults tend to have a wealth of personal and cultural knowledge that can add a distinct perspective to the voices on climate change. For instance, older adults’ lifelong experience with social relations may allow them to take a more realistic and constructive perspective on how to present arguments on controversial issues, such as climate change, to other individuals. Similarly, many older adults are experts in complex decision making and their expertise could be productively applied in organizations that address issues of sustainability and climate change (e.g., Environmental Defense Fund). Older adults’ wealth of knowledge, including that they have witnessed and adapted to many technological and societal changes during their lifetime, should be viewed as a potential “natural resource” that can be activated in the context of climate change.
Older adults also have a great deal of financial and electoral power they can bring to bear on issues of sustainability and climate change. Not only are middle-aged and older adults the largest age group of consumers in the United States, but they are also the age group with the strongest buying power and greatest financial assets. Similarly, middle-aged and older adults represent a large block of voters and are more likely than younger adults to express their interests through active participation in local and federal elections. Older adults can use these two sources of real-life power to actively define their stake in issues of sustainability and climate change.
Instead of older adults being perceived as vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the narrative on aging should be reframed so that more older adults feel empowered to become actively involved in issues of sustainability and climate change. Given this positive outlook on the critical importance of older adults’ contributions to climate change initiatives, it is reasonable to ask: Why is it that more older adults are not involved in environmental advocacy and climate change actions?
Challenges to Involving Older Adults in Climate Change Initiatives
Although several national surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of older adults are concerned about the environment and endorse actions to address climate change, only a relatively small percentage of older adults are actively involved in environmental organizations (Frumkin et al., 2012; Pillemer et al., 2017). This is the case despite rates of volunteering being overall quite high in individuals older than age 60 (Diehl et al., 2020). Thus, there seems to be a disconnect between attitudes and behavior, a common finding in surveys on climate change. These findings also raise the question regarding potential barriers that may keep older adults from becoming actively involved in environmental volunteering and climate change actions (Frumkin et al., 2012; Pillemer et al., 2017).
Although there are very likely many reasons why older adults are not more visibly engaged in actions related to climate change (see Pillemer et al., 2017), I want to highlight only a few of those challenges. First, older adults with health impairments may think involvement in environmental volunteering and climate change activities is too strenuous and may negatively affect their physical health. Although this fear is understandable, evidence regarding the possible health outcomes of environmental volunteering have been shown to be quite positive and to last for a long time (Pillemer et al., 2010). Involvement in environmental volunteering often requires becoming more physically active, which, in turn, may lead to positive physical (e.g., lower blood pressure) and mental health outcomes (e.g., fewer depressive symptoms). Moreover, the positive effects of environmental volunteering on older adults’ physical and mental health seem to be significantly greater than the positive effects of other forms of volunteering—a fact that may not be well-known among older adults (Pillemer et al., 2010).
‘Evidence regarding the possible health outcomes of environmental volunteering have been shown to be quite positive and to last for a long time.’
Second, older adults may lack experience in advocacy and “green activism” or may feel that they lack sufficient expertise and knowledge about environmental issues and climate change. At the same time, environmental organizations have not been all that proactive in reaching out to older adults in recruitment efforts. Pillemer et al. (2017) pointed out that despite the large numbers of Baby Boomers who are retiring and who may be inclined to become involved in climate change action, there are few organized pathways to get involved in environmental volunteering. Organizations that focus on environmental protection, sustainability issues, and climate change should focus on older adults as an untapped source of human capital. These organizations also make more systematic efforts to recruit older adults.
Third, Pillemer and colleagues (2017) found that many environmental organizations’ models of engagement did not meet older adults’ needs. Specifically, older adults often felt their professional expertise and skills were not used appropriately by these organizations. Instead, they were assigned exclusively to tedious, low-level tasks that did not allow them to demonstrate their leadership skills and professional expertise, often resulting in the feeling that their time was not spent productively. To break down this barrier that keeps older adults from volunteering in environmental organizations, programs need to adopt principles that show older adults that their expertise and skills are valued and that their life experiences and concerns are recognized as valuable assets. For example, programs like Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE; Pillemer et al., 2017) or Growing Greener have recognized this issue and represent promising approaches in the right direction.
Finally, Pillemer et al. (2017) found that older adults often think environmental volunteering lacks the social relationship aspects that make other volunteering jobs so rewarding. Because staying socially connected may be of particular concern to older adults in retirement or after a critical life event (e.g., loss of a spouse or friends), climate change and environmental volunteer programs need to be mindful about this issue and incorporate a social component in their programming. Climate change initiatives may have the unique opportunity to bring individuals from multiple generations and diverse backgrounds, including racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, together to work on problems that are of concern to all of them. Moreover, research in the workplace has shown that older adults are often better prepared and more open to engaging in multigenerational training programs than younger individuals (Hedge et al., 2006).
To convince older adults to get actively involved in environmental issues, sustainability, and climate change actions, it is important to recognize that there are barriers that keep them from doing so. Addressing these barriers in a creative and systematic fashion will help to unlock the human capital and the natural resource that exists in the growing population of concerned older adults (Diehl et al., 2020; Rowe & Kahn, 2015).
A positive reframing of the narrative on older adults and old age in the U.S. society is warranted and may be particularly well suited for getting more older adults actively involved in environmental volunteering and climate change issues. Such a positive reframing of the contributions older adults can make in the climate change arena also recognizes them as a natural resource that our society cannot afford to leave untapped.
Author Note: Manfred Diehl’s work on this article was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health (R01 AG051723).
Manfred Diehl, PhD, is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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