There is an argument going around that all we have to do to solve the climate problem is to wait for all the old people to die off.

Most versions of the theory just assume this is completely obvious and needs no justification, however, one version of it goes something like this: Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions shows that arguments and experiments by new scientists never produce a paradigm shift, or a shift in world view, but the old scientists just die off, and as they die the new view takes over. (I’m not actually sure that is an entirely accurate way of summarising Kuhn’s work, but it is a possible way of summarising parts of it).

The position assumes that all old people are the problem, not some older people, and that the only important factor is age, not social patterning, technological positioning and lock-in, power and class, ideologies, economic hierarchies etc. Just old people.

In reality, only particular powerful and probably wealthy older people are a problem, and they are generally representatives of groups of people, both old and young, and that group benefits from generating the climate problem, sees themselves as benefiting from what causes the climate problem, cannot see how to live without generating climate change, or thinks change is more costly than non-change like Bjorn Lomborg does. So this idea deletes a lot of social and political reality, and that is never good.

This generation war meme, is nowadays, used to explain almost anything, from crap jobs, to lack of housing, to broadcast music, and it is distracting people from other social dynamics which are probably more important. That is probably why it is encouraged; just as ‘progressives’ in the US are being taught to focus on Joe Biden’s weaknesses rather than Trump’s massive failures.

It works, without having to be thought about, because most spirited young people have problems with their parents and parental restrictions, and it can easily feel like their parents, and old people in general, are the cause of many of their problems, so why not add a few more to the list?

As well as cultivating unconsciousness, and misdirecting anger, the meme acts to prevent alliances and all of this benefits the established groups with wealth and power. We can observe that many climate protests are full of older people and quite young people.

As far as the power hierarchy goes these young and old people, must be prevented from allying, after all experienced demonstrators could probably teach a few effective tactics and give a few cautions, like taking heroin is not radical :).

There don’t seem to me many middle period people at demonstrations, and these people are the next generation to come to power, and if this problem is all about generational movement, you could expect things to get worse rather than better, because of this apparent disinterest. But I suspect many midlife people are busy with children and other stuff, and they are as varied as anyone else, and as open to alliances as everyone else. So they should not be ignored – and they vote.

Anyway, even if dying off, bought positive changes on some occasions, it does not mean it is beneficial all the time. The changes from die off could also be negative. When the old union-based democratic socialists died off you got the neoliberals, stagnant wages, lowered conditions of labour, political exclusion and heightened environmental destruction. Not necessarily an improvement for everyone.

As far as I can tell one of the problems with the youth rebellion of the 60s was precisely that they thought that they would inevitably win, as the old faded away to almost quote The Who. The problem was that real hippies and revolutionaries, although they represented the image of a generation, were probably at the most, 10% of the population. Other people their age, where roughly carrying on previous traditions and views, so no radical change in general could be expected (although feminism and anti-racism became relatively mainstream despite the recent fight backs), and the right found the way of splitting the radicals through libertarianism and anti-Statism, which seamlessly merged into neoliberalism and environmental destruction…. and led to where we are now.

In summary: Youth movements cannot assume they can win simply by old people dying off. They can lose a large number of supporters through those deaths, and the struggle continues anyway against their own generation, because they cannot assume that their own voices and beliefs are those of the majority of that generation. And the fight may really be against social processes, destructive economics, and power/energy relations, and those are what have to change.