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OK Gen X (and where the bloody hell are you?)

man on skateboard
Gen X, that nihilistic, self-deprecating generation, once clad in ripped jeans and flannelette shirts, is missing in action in the fight for climate action.

The most critically important place to do something is the workplace. Workplaces are the new village. They are one of the few institutions we still trust. And it’s time to look at Gen X for action.

When I first heard the “OK Boomer” catch-cry I laughed out loud. My immediate thought was, ‘yes, I am as tired as you are trying to talk sense into them’.

But, on reflection, my response and the phrase itself became deeply unsettling. Dismissal is a step past futility.

Jokes can break the tension; they allow us to bring the emotional state down while keeping the issues on the table. But, in this case, the basis of the joke is shutting the door – an end to engagement and discourse. Infinite division.

I know plenty of Boomers who are environmentally conscious. In fact, it was visiting friends out in the environmental living zone around Kangaroo Ground that I learned – from their parents – how to live in harmony with nature. It was inspiring.

But those folks haven’t been able to influence their own generation, who couldn’t divorce environmentally sustainable living from the hippy fringe activism they can all tell you about, but largely avoided, in their youth.

I am a member of Gen X, that nihilistic, self-deprecating generation who, clad in ripped jeans and flannelette shirts, wallowed a little too long in our rejection of… not quite sure. I can only say that nowadays I listen to the Rolling Stones and Prince more than Nirvana or Pearl Jam. I like feeling good about myself.

But I can’t feel good when I watch the young scream for help and move to the point of dismissal, while the Boomers shout back, equally dismissive of activists like Greta Thunberg while conservative cheerleaders publish comments such as ‘I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru’. Getting personal is the last desperate tactic of the irrelevant.

So, I ask myself, “Gen X, where the bloody hell are you?”

It’s a vitally important question for three obvious reasons.

Firstly, we were the first generation to be taught about environmental sustainability from a young age –  that’s recycling and land management to global warming. We learned at school and university. And it has been a constant theme in our lives.

Secondly, through the natural process of upward mobility in business, government and community organisations, we are suddenly finding ourselves in positions of power and influence. We are being handed the keys.

And, finally, many of us have kids. We know what intimate dependence feels like. Our kids won’t be in a position of influence in time to make the right decisions – for many, it will be far too late. We have to do it for them. The dependence goes way beyond food and shelter. It is an extreme level of responsibility Boomers never knew.

I have to be honest, right now it feels like mine is the silent generation. Silently complicit, as the climate change inertia has turned action into wet cement, about to harden.

We’re at this dangerous inflection point at which leading politicians are persuading us, with comforting economic succour, that it’s all ok – we’re gently moving from mitigation to adaptation. Please keep (sleep) walking. Yes, things are going to burn more, but you can feel safe in the fortress we will build for you.

And we are silent.

I know the mid-life yearn for financial security, and the difficulty of breaking habits. I have well over a decade of data about beliefs, attitudes and cognitive biases sitting in our company’s archives. I see myself in that data.

It’s not in human nature to move out from the crowd. We’re programmed to conform to the group(s) to which we belong. That’s how social norms work, the unwritten rules we know to follow. Sometimes this means we might have an opinion, but we won’t express or act on it unless we think enough will follow. It’s called groupthink – the practice of thinking as a group, resulting in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making.

What next, then?

First, some courage. Today, in Australia, 72 per cent of us rate climate change as a problem for us personally. And, for the first time, in January this year, the environment was ranked the top concern for Australians, ahead of the economy and health. You are not alone; you will not act alone.

It’s time to plan and act – to make positive changes to the way we live, work and spend.

Fortunately, it’s surprisingly easy to reconfigure your life to reduce your environmental footprint. Solar power, composting, electronic vehicles, efficient appliances, smaller homes, local holidays – these are all things most of us can do within a few years and with no economic pain.

It turns out, the kids love doing it with you. They brag about you to their mates – and their mates’ parents who start changing too. Not because they were told; because they were shown.

It’s a bit braver, but invigorating nonetheless, to start speaking some truths at the footy club, on social and on the street. To say where you stand, and why. To share your opinion in the way that you are most comfortable.

But, actually, the most critically important place to do something is the workplace.  Workplaces are the new village. They are one of the few institutions we still trust. Studies increasingly reveal that we want our employers to speak out on important social issues and take action in ways that are profitable and meaningful.

If you are in a management or leadership role and you are not talking near term change then you are not serious. And you are at risk. 74% of your employees think that you should be taking the lead on change.

The January Ipsos Issues poll which tracks the top issues facing Australians revealed that more Boomers (42 per cent) are concerned about the environment than Gen Xers (37 per cent). Does that resonate?

Because “OK Gen X” is just around the corner. And that will be your kids dismissing you.

This article first appeared in Pro Bono Australia and has been republished with permission

Rhod Ellis-Jones, director of Ellis Jones social impact consultancy and founder of the Shared Value Project, helping businesses solve social and environmental problems profitably.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

6 Responses to “OK Gen X (and where the bloody hell are you?)”

  • Claudia Fanelli says:

    Generation X has stepped up plenty. We’re the most educated (35% of us have degrees, only 19% of millennial do), we have the largest amount of disposable income to spend on products, and we have some pretty big names in our ranks- Musk, Bezos, to start- and who have changed the world.

    None of us parade around reminding everyone that we are Gen X like millennials do and we don’t insult the older generations for not being around or exposed to new technology “Ok, Boomer!” Especially when the snot nosed Gen Z kids call anyone over 30 a Boomer. We just mind out own business, continue being the backbone of America, and coming up with ideas and companies that will change more lives.

  • Davis Demillo says:

    Most of the Gen-Xers I know were activists during our undergrad days when climate change issues first came about along with other environmental/humanitarian issues. Most of us have taken on various careers and are still trying to make positive changes through our own work. However, the biggest issue and the cause of my frustration with human beings is their apathy! This is food for the likes of all the destructive and sociopathic leaders we have running amok right now because people have given them this power through inaction.

    For Gen X, the Boomers have got such a tight grip on their power that it’s difficult for us to break through. So many times, I’ve heard, ‘let’s just wait until the Boomers die out’. But in every generation, there’s always been a handful of people fighting for what’s right and carrying the torch of hope. In saying this, I’ve never seen a generation such as the younger millennials organise rallies in sheer numbers because it started with one person.

    So, in response to the article’s question, yes, we’re still here and fighting our own battles from various fronts. How about we team up with this new generation because our experiences coupled with their energy and passion will be an unstoppable force for positive change?

  • Craig Sharp says:

    Where does one start?
    The constant attacks from the far right and the BILLIONS of dollars supporting them is beyond belief. I’m in my 50’s now, and to see how this great land of ours has been pulled apart by the greed and the powerful, completely allowed and backed by politicians is well very depressing

    This is what I feel needs to happen. We as a single voice don’t really have any power but as a collective, we should and we will. There are many small environmental associations around that individuals could join in this great continent but instead of working against each other they should become a collective for the same goal and then we, the ones that care for the environment, the Fauna, the native species, fresh air, clean water, and not opposed to the correct development of the land that is ours NOT CORPORATIONS could push councils, States, and the Federal Government into doing what is right and just for this great land of ours.

    It’s up to you, me and everyone to get off our backsides and stop complaining about what’s going on, stand up for what we believe in. It will be a struggle but our kids and beyond will thank us for what we acheived.

  • Willow Aliento says:

    As a GenX-er and lifetime environmental advocate I have noted a really large elephant in the whole “why isn’t GenX using it’s power” discussion. Around half of GenX are female, and study after study has shown older women are disadvantaged in the workforce. We are generally on lower wages – and always have been – passed over for promotion, increasingly in casual or contract roles where we have minimal organisational influence, do “double duty” or “triple duty” with caring responsibilities for both youngsters and in many cases ageing parents… and so forth.

    genX women who are Aboriginal, DV survivors, live with disability, have had periods out of the workforce due to illness/maternity, come from a diverse cultural background and/or are in lower socioeconomic households experience even further layers of disempowerment and disadvantage.

    We are here, but many of us have for a long time been largely invisible and ignored. That said, many GenX women have been the backbone of community organisations at the coalface of sustainability – we take the meeting notes, hand out flyers, collect donations, run the cake stalls, clean up animal poop at wildlife refuges, make donations, organise community meetings, maintain websites, edit and write newsletters, draft petitions, submit to inquiries, lobby local members, write grant applications, roll up to hand out how to vote cards, compost the food scraps, pick the “cold” cycle on the washing machine, bring the shopping bags, read the labels, join consumer boycotts…. and so forth. None of which is usually glorious or even noticed, but without those efforts I question whether we’d have made as much progress as we have.

  • Daniel Wurm says:

    It’s totally is up to Gen X to take the lead!

    There are lots of Gen Xs stepping up to the plate. I’m one of them.

    We are the generation of Midnight Oil, for God’s sake!

    I don’t see Millennials singing about environmental issues or making protest songs.

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