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The Occupy Movement and the Generational Divide

We must understand the shifting priorities of the millennial generation.

As time goes on I am realizing that my values, and the values of many of my contemporaries, known as the millennial generation, are deviating from our parents' generation, the boomers. Some of these shifts are subtle and some are more fundamental. These changes are being shaped by new attitudes, by technological advances, new cultural mediums, a stagnating economy and by a growing realization that our society's relationship with the natural world is out of sync.

While many gray haired politicians and media figures seek to deny climate change and energy resource depletion issues, or at least delay any mitigating action, my generation is increasingly unified in the belief we have to address our ecological deficit, not just our monetary one.

As I have begun developing my own voice and sense of place in the world, I’ve become increasingly motivated to get involved, thinking globally, but primarily acting locally. However as it becomes more clear and apparent to me that we must begin a transition away from the cheap and easy petroleum fueled status quo set by the last 50 years, progress is constantly hindered by those who cannot let go of old ideas. On the opposite end of almost any issues I deeply care about, those most opposed are often double my age or more.

How deep this generational divide has become didn’t really become apparent to me until I started getting more directly involved in public process and planning in Santa Monica. First of all it is often disproportionately the more senior members of the community that are the biggest demographic represented at various planning and commission meetings, where I am often the youngest in the room. While I think staff and appointed officials do try to weigh in the concerns of all community members, there is an undeniable pull toward those most physically represented at meetings and that tends to be more skewed in age than our actual population.

This effect lends more weight to the interests of those who may not even be around to see the 25 year scope of long range plans, and downplays the concerns of those who most definitely will. The demographic make up of such meetings ends up as it is I think for a variety of reasons; younger people are not yet as plugged into local political structures, often work longer hours (why I missed last Wednedays bike plan meeting), and may still have more social activity (though not in my case). All things that complicate and discourage civic involvement.

It’s obvious to me given the challenges we face, a new course forward must include more , , transit, and more localized food production. We need more and urban infill that reduces daily energy use. Not speculative and financially bankrupt sprawl at the fringes. In Santa Monica we are working toward many of these goals, although more slowly than I really feel is necessary.

I know there are some of the boomers and even older who have been fighting the good fight toward a sustainable, enduring society for a very long time. A few of those folks I know personally. Those rebel dreamers are largely responsible for our predicament not being even worse than it is now, but sadly I think the prevailing tide was toward short term gain and self interest. Not toward long term planning for the future or responcible prudence.

The venting frustration of young people protesting right now has some older Americans scratching their heads, but it all makes perfect sense to me as a 27 year old. I’ve been fortunate to land a good job that pays well straight out of school, a job that is stable (for now at least), and has great benefits. But for more and more young people and recent graduates, many of my friends, unemployment is far above the already elevated national average, student loan debts are more crushing than ever thanks to decades of rising tuition, and there are few signs of anything getting much better any time soon. Millennials have inherited a mismanaged economy that is corrupt, unjust, unstable, and unsustainable. We have inherited an age of environmental devastation and diminished natural resources.

I think what is really fueling young people hitting the streets, setting up camp in parks, and even braving violent police brutality, is an awakening, a realization that our generation will likely be worse off than our parents generation. That lawless powerful companies have been gambling with our future and are enabled by corrupted government. A sense that our future has been screwed, and that the screws are being tightened. The Occupy Wall Street protesters, and other allied groups around the country, including those on the , are not that interested in working within the two party circus. They see the system itself as utterly flawed, corrupt, and incapable.

There is no one clear solution and singular demand being made by those protesting, because the problems in our society are too big, too deep and too complex for sound bytes or bumper sticker messages to fix. This is the beginning of a process, a new discourse that is willing to debate and address the issues our elected leaders will not.

My generation faces a perfect storm bearing down on us in the form of peaking oil production, climate change (the International Energy Agency says we have a 5 year window to act before change is permanent) and global economic instability. I no longer believe it is possible to make a smooth or easy transition, because we have waited so long to take any meaningful action. My best hope is for enough mitigation to soften the blow, but I doubt even that sometimes as we still largely deny and delay action on the science in front of us.

The biggest roadblock to necessary changes are those still holding onto obsolete thinking. Those that either do not understand what we face, do not care about future generations, are driven by short term greed and self interest, or some combination of all of the above.

I plead for those standing in the way of change, to get on board, or get out of the way. Don’t let your legacy to my generation be endless war, crushing debts, liability for infrastructure that will become worthless, and a destabilized ecosystem that will threaten human lives, and trigger more extinctions. Institutional and societal inaction on the greatest challenges we face can only go on so long.

Young people are starting to stand up, lock arms, and take violent abuse if necessary to protest. We know voting isn’t good enough when the system is corrupted and rigged, and many are now willing to be beaten by clubs, maced, arrested, gassed and struck with projectiles, for what they believe in.

The Occupy protests won’t be dissipating anytime soon, and even if they were to go into a period of hibernation, every person that has been part of one of the encampments will spread like dandelions to their respective communities, charged with new ideas and thinking. Preparations will be made for a second wave, a third wave. It will go on as long as it takes to make the system respond to the aspirations and challenges facing young Americans and future generations. Or perhaps if need be, replace it with one that will. We’ll see. I know I’ll be watching every move from my smart phone.

I don’t know precisely how this will all go down. But I do know the status quo of economic growth backed by rising debts cannot be maintained. It is a simple matter of physics on a finite planet. A breaking point is inevitable. Richard Heinberg, a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of The End of Growth, has been framing the Occupy movement as a pivotal response to the end of economics as we have come to know it.

When the future is looking darker, there is little to lose, and every reason to fight. Our society can channel this energy toward the work of building a sustainable and just society, and a foundation for a new economy, or we can let it stew and boil over in a rage that may erupt at some latter date under the pressure of further catastrophe. I hope for the former, but I don’t doubt we may see some of the latter if we delay much longer.

Claudia Schafer November 14, 2011 at 05:51 PM
Amen, Cheryll. Gary - if anything, the job market is skewed in the direction of the X and millenial generations, not the boomers. We are the first fired (pardon me - "downsized") and last hired. Many of us have lost our homes, retirement funds, and health care because the elephant in the room (ageist hiring/firing practices) has deemed all our hard work, knowledge, and experience to be irrelevant. Many of us have been recycling, buying cruelty free, and anything else we can do at the grass roots level for about 30 years already. The problem is - regardless of party affiliations, the plutocrats in government do not represent any of us, and there just aren't enough bananas in the jungle any more.
Gary Kavanagh November 14, 2011 at 06:30 PM
The wealth divide between 65+ and 30 and under is greater than it has ever been, with students saddled with more student loan debt than all the credit card debt in the United States. A product of schools becoming more expensive with years of rate hikes and diverting money away from education, and nearly every job demanding college education. More and more people are retiring into places like the villages in Florida where local taxes are nearly non-existent, so they can give as little back to the education needs of the young people that care for them as possible. I talked to a kid at the Santa Monica REI yesterday, and there were 600 applicants for a job to sell outdoor clothing, and youth unemployment rate is higher in the US currently than it was in Egypt before the largely youth driven revolts. I realize there are a lot of boomers and seniors being screwed over as well, but they benefit from a lot of social programs, while young people are floundering in debt, the rate of child poverty is spiking and today's young will be stuck with the bill of our out of control and growing debts, both government and private.
Gary Kavanagh November 14, 2011 at 06:35 PM
If all of the human caused environmental devastation of the past 50 years is not the responsibility of those who have been leading and managing society all these years, than who's responsibility is it? Isn't the current state of things entirely the fault of the people who have led to this point? Millennials are just now barely getting old enough to become engaged in politics and start running for office or leading business.
Dr. Brian Schwartz November 26, 2011 at 05:59 AM
@Gary...I sympathize with your point of view but please be careful not to deflect the main and key point as to who is responsible for the financial meltdown and who has created a situation where the wealth gap has grown to unsupportable dimensions. It is not senior people in general but the 0.1% who have manipulated the system through buying politicians and regulators and created the revolving door on K Street with lobbyists betraying the People while financiers turned the world financial markets into a huge casino where their bets were placed, often against their own clients, and their losses covered by taxpayers while their gains went to their own pockets in obscene amounts. These leeches do not create jobs but have demonstrated clearly that they will wreak havoc on the 99.9% with not a blink of the eye. The system is corrupt and beyond repair while the ruling elite has just about all their electoral bases covered. The People are finally awakening to the travesty they live in as their jobs, homes and future success goes up in flames. Power to the People who will abuse it the least.
Claudia Schafer November 27, 2011 at 03:17 AM
Thank Heavens for your concise on point treatise!! All those .1% are hoping we'll just continue to squabble amongst ourselves over whose at fault, while they continue to bleed us all dry...laughing all the way to their off-shore banks.

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