What kind of world will our grandchildren inherit?

Future generations cleaning up present-day rubbish and pollution

Younger generations have the least say when it comes to addressing climate change … and yet they will bear the brunt of its future effects. What are the ethical implications of our youth not having a seat at decision-making tables – in the corporate world and beyond – when it comes to environmental policy which will directly impact their futures? How drastically is the world as we know it going to change when our youth come of age and finally have real power to steer environmental issues?

Paula Kirwan, Brunel Australasia’s General Manager (East) reflects on a rapidly changing world and workforce, urges us to give our youth more of a voice on environmental issues, and examines what the world will look like when the kids grow up and take charge.

Paula Kirwan
General Manager (East), Brunel Australasia
Paula Kirwan

Lessons from our youth

Working in the renewables sector, it really hits home just how rapidly our world and workforce is evolving. Renewable energy is an exciting area to be involved in, one where to some degree everyone is learning on the job. There’s a sense of urgency in the industry – to adapt our ways and meet the needs of a future which will look drastically different to our past. My experience in the field has prompted me to think deeply on that future and realise just how differently younger generations view the world. Today’s youth have strong opinions about our current action – and inaction – on environmental issues. And why wouldn’t they? While we won’t be around to experience the consequences of our actions, they will be.

On a personal level, I’ve reached a phase of life where my children are grown and are beginning to start families of their own. Having recently attended my daughter’s wedding, I’m already thinking about grandkids and what kind of world they will inherit. Of course, it shouldn’t take having grandchildren to care about what kind of legacy we leave behind, but – dare I say it – we humans can sometimes be a selfish bunch. Still, with my own descendants firmly in mind, I find myself contemplating how the world will look when it comes my time to exit this life.

I decided to ask my children what renewable energy means to them. Is it important to them and why? What are they doing to help create a sustainable future? And what do they think I need to do differently to make the planet a better place for them and their children, after I’m gone?

Our conversation was sobering. My daughter is a nurse and my son is studying to be a doctor, so they are both passionate about health. They see renewable energy as essential to creating a cleaner environment. They both want to reduce sickness and feel that so many of our health issues stem from pollution and exposure to toxins through products and what we eat. It’s important to them that they work for a company which shares their vision; they told me outright that they would refuse to work for an organisation they felt was destroying the planet. Do they think I – and my generation – could do better, act faster, on environmental matters? Yes, they do.

The kids are stressed

Our kids are extremely stressed about the future of our planet. A recent survey revealed that three in four young Australians describe being frightened about the future and believe ‘the grownups’ have failed to adequately care for the environment. Half of the young Australians surveyed believe they will have fewer opportunities than their parents and that climate change could destroy the things they value most and threaten family security. The survey also revealed that 40 per cent of young Australians said they were hesitant to have children due to climate change.

Another report found that 80 per cent of Australians aged over 16 years were concerned about climate change. Similarly, the vast majority of Generation Z believe current world leaders have not done enough to protect the environment and believe that governments need to invest more into renewable energy sources.

None of this should come as a surprise. Climate change is an urgent threat and our youth are the most vulnerable to its impacts. They aren’t in charge and on top of that, many don’t trust their leaders to make the right decisions for them and the planet. Children have a finely tuned radar for hyperbole, inconsistency and delay tactics. They recognise distant goals such as 2050 carbon reduction targets as another way of saying ‘not now’. They understand that actions in the next 10 years will profoundly affect their lives – not ambitions set for 30 years from now. Our youth are frustrated with the older generations for putting them in this position and they are very scared about what living conditions will look like in the decades ahead. This burden they carry – the prospect of living with the consequences of climate change and their current lack of power to do much about it – is causing widespread psychological distress.

Tackling reverse ageism in the workplace

It’s ironic that we live in a culture which worships youth and yet we don’t give our youth much respect or power to weigh in on important matters that impact their futures. This dynamic plays out strongly in our workplaces and is known as reverse ageism. While most are familiar with how age discrimination is a problem affecting older workers, we often overlook ageism directed at youth. Just as young children feel powerless to impact environmental change and have a voice on decisions which will impact their futures, young adults are experiencing much the same in the corporate world.

Traditional workplace hierarchies prize seniority, and today’s millennial and Generation Z workers face biases from older workers that make it difficult for them to influence change. A study asking respondents to rate their general feelings towards younger adults in the workplace revealed pervasive perceptions of young people being entitled, lazy, disrespectful and radical. While some positive traits were also acknowledged such as the ‘ambitious’ and ‘tech-savvy’, it’s easy to see how this general negative bias towards young people in the workplace means they are less likely to be afforded respect or taken seriously. If a young person is judged as ‘radical’ for having a different perspective on a sustainability policy, for example, how likely are they to speak against the opinions of their senior colleague, and even if they do pluck up the courage, how likely is it that those ideas will be seriously considered?

We need to address this power imbalance in a major way. Young people have the right to have a say in their future and I would argue that we have a lot to learn from them when it comes to environmental matters. How can we as business leaders amplify the voices of the younger generation in the workplace, especially when it comes to environmental policy which will impact their future?

We could encourage young people to speak up in meetings and support them when they do so. We could offer to mentor young people in our workplaces. We could train our teams to be aware of ageism and its harmful impacts on everyone in the workforce. We could be courageous and call out ageism when we witness it in our workplaces (people often display blatant biases towards age because it’s more socially acceptable than gender or race-based discrimination). We could encourage our more senior peers to acknowledge their moral obligation to act on the climate crisis. We could ensure that we have a range of age representation in any decision-making meetings related to environmental policy within our organisation. If we walk into a meeting where all participants are making a decision on something they won’t live to see pan out, we could challenge that.

The tide is turning (or perhaps more accurately, rising)

Whether or not we pick up the mantle to fight more ferociously against climate change, whether or not we listen to the voices of our youth, the power dynamic is shifting as young people step into their power. Our youth are the most vocal and active generation to fight for the planet in recorded history. Where older generations were far more conditioned to accept the status quo, my children’s generation see things very differently because they will live to experience the impacts. They recognise their ability to vote with their feet and influence change by selecting the organisations they will or won’t work for or buy from. In the workplace, they may feel a lack of power but they’re not resigned to waiting until they reach senior management to steer things. The needle is shifting from powerless to empowered. Environmental activists like Greta Thunberg have taught them to use their voices and that it’s possible to start a global movement from the ground up.

Brunel’s own Workforce Insight Report recently illustrated the changing demographics of Australia’s resources industry, revealing that Generation’s Y and Z already outnumber Baby Boomers and Generation X within Mining, Oil & Gas and Renewable Energy. In fact, Millennials currently account for 45 per cent of the Australian resources industry workforce. Many are flocking to renewables and those remaining in the more traditional resources sectors are pushing for change.

Across all industries, within the workplace and beyond, young people are leading the way in demanding urgent action on the climate crisis. Millennials and Generation Z are actively demonstrating that they have the knowledge, capacity and will to promote lasting positive change for our environment – more than all other generations before them. And whether or not we choose to get on board with them, they are demonstrating they will make change happen, regardless. So, we must ask ourselves: how do we want to be remembered? They see by our actions how much importance we really place on sustainability and ‘green living’. Their whole generation is watching. For them, it’s not some distant fight – it’s real and their lives depend on it. We’re so proud of them … but will they be proud of us?

About the author

With nearly 30 years of experience operating and managing Recruitment Business’ in the UK and Australia, Brunel’s GM (East) Paula Kirwan’s expertise spans across many industries from board to graduate-level recruitment, and specialises in developing methodologies which incorporate cost minimisation, IR negotiations, talent planning and mobilisation.

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