A few months ago, I found out that my late grandmother had her own compost at home. I was casually talking with my family during dinner when my mother remembered this. After eating an orange, stacking its peel on a plate, and throwing it into the trash can, she described how her mother, my grandma, would have saved that same peel together with other organic material, put it in a plastic box with holes in it, covered them with napkins forming a lid to keep the materials moist. Then, she would bring it to our home -since she lived in an apartment building- and give it to my mother, so that she could use it as fertilizer for the plants in our garden.
Honestly, I was in awe of this information. I didn’t know my grandma was into this practice, and I wouldn’t have ever imagined she had interest in something related to sustainability. I had this preconception regarding the elderly’s relationship with the environment. If asked about this subject, I would have probably said that the elderly are not interested in issues related to sustainability , since the majority of the information and consequent concern about the planet is characteristically linked to most recent generations. This made me reflect on the conception of sustainability and care for the environment and how it shows up within different generations.
Referring to sustainability and its origins might be a good starting point. The concept of sustainable development became globally known after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, and it is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, considering wellbeing, development, environment and future”. However, this concept had been brewing since the 1970s, when several scientific reports, including the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, were published ringing the alarm bells on the gravity of the environmental crisis. In this same decade, organizations like Greenpeace were born, derived from the great expansion of environmental mobilization.
By this time, my grandmother was about 35 years old, and already a mother of three. She certainly did not have access to information in the way we do today, nor social media where she could find out what people her age were doing in the rest of the world. In fact, she grew up as part of the “Silent Generation”, formed by people born between 1928 and 1945, who are usually described as thrifty, determined and with a huge respect for authority. These characteristics are often linked with the difficult times this generation experienced while growing up, marked by the Great Depression and World War II. In this sense, she was not likely to question what was happening around her; she might not even have been aware of the damage that was starting to be caused in the environment. However, in my view, this consciousness my grandmother had about her consumption, her inclination to save money in any opportunity she had and her prudence in general -which may be extended to other people of her same generation- were key in her relationship with the planet and her care for it; whether she was deliberately trying to help the environment, or if these were simply part of her day-to-day actions.
Following the Silent Generation, the “post-war” generation are namely the Baby Boomers, or “a person born during a baby boom in the US between 1947 and 1961”. Nevertheless, by this time, there was an increase of birth rates across the world, not just the U.S. People wanted to forget the horrors of World War II and the Depression, and one of the ways was starting a family and creating a sense of confidence and purpose in their lives. Having been raised in a much more joyful and prosperous surrounding, some of the main characteristics of baby boomers as adults are self-confidence, resourcefulness and goal centricity. Compared to the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers are usually more inclined to question established authority systems, they are focused on reaching their personal and professional goals and although they did not necessarily grow up with them, they are more acquainted with digital tools. Some studies indicate that they have different consumption patterns, which make Baby Boomers “spend more money on houses, energy consumption and food”. It may seem that this generation is more self-centered than the previous one, with consumption patterns that are way less environmentally friendly, leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Often, this occurred without an acknowledgement of the consequences. Of course, it would be quite restrictive to limit the analysis of a whole generation to a few characteristics, especially when considering such a controversial and broad generation as the Baby Boomers. For that reason, it is important to mention that a big portion of them would be willing to change their lifestyles in response to environmental issues, reaching a level of agreement almost equal to Gen Z on this matter, as shown by a survey carried out in the UK.
A lot has changed regarding recent generations and their relationship with the environment. If one of the main traits of Baby Boomers is having more of a critical spirit, Millennials -those born between 1980 and 1996- turn this into higher curiosity. Millennials tend to not hesitate to try new ways of getting things done and utilize various tools while they do. In relation to this, they are open-minded and accept change as part of their lives, being witnesses of major technological advancements such as the intrusion of the first social media platforms and the transition to an increased digital interaction. Actually, they were the ones who pushed Instagram to its success, which is currently one of the most relevant social media platforms in the world. On a negative side, they have been named the “Generation Me”, due to their supposed narcissism, materialistic tendency and disengagement with the community. But to what extent is this true? In terms of caring for the environment, millennials have certainly shown concern for climate change, and they stand out for their level of engagement when it comes to this matter: compared to older adults, they are getting much more involved in discussions about the need for action on climate change, they are participating in volunteering activities and encouraging others to vote. On this point, they have much in common with Gen Z, usually considered as the forefront of sustainability and environmental action. Gen Z’s and Millenials in fact do sharemany similar characteristics, but there is a really particular one that separates Gen Z both from Millennials and from previous generations: they are digital natives. Since they were born within the peak of innovation and immediately submerged into social media and infinite information, which lead them to be more eager to learn and also to share their opinion on a wide range of sensitive subjects. And it is this openness to sharing their opinions, views and values that helps them become eco-warriers, having a positive impact by influencing others in getting into eco-friendly activities. Studies have also shown that Gen Z make wiser decisions when consuming, inclined to more sustainable products. However, it has been shown that there is a gap between Gen Z’s concern and actual action towards environmental problems; the anxiety for the future and its potential catastrophes is real, but in many cases nothing is being done to fight them.
Each of these four generations were and are still defined by the context of their lifetime. Across all four generations, improvements, new attitudes and ways of approaching certain issues emerged. Millennials and Generation Z, which are said to be the most involved generations in environmental affairs, are surely aware of what is going on but not always compromised to change their lifestyle in order to carry out real changes. Baby Boomers proved to be more critical about social problems, but they have consumption habits that might be harmful for the planet. Finally, the Silent Generation, my grandmother’s generation, is more careful and generally has a sense of community rather than an egocentric behavior, but they may not be able or willing to discuss or take part in activities related to the environment in the same way that more recent generations do, because of their custom to keep things as they are and their reduced access to information on the issues shared across the internet and the mass-communication tool that social media is in general. I am Gen Z myself, and I would say I am pretty familiar with most of the environmental challenges we are facing and its possible consequences, but I can relate to the feeling of being so overwhelmed by information that I find it difficult to start creating little habits into my life, which would result in meaningful contributions for the planet. I think it is really helpful to be conscious about this and know that it is not just me who is going through it, and that with my ability to research and share about these topics I may also be able to get others involved in the discussion.
Shortly after we remembered my grandma’s compost at dinner that day, my mother’s birthday came and a close friend gifted her a compost bin, completely by chance. She immediately turned compost into a common practice at home: no more throwing peels, fruit pits, vegetable remains, etc., into the trash bin. Now we separate them -just as grandma did- and take them outside to the compost bin at the end of the day. I have to admit it was quite difficult for me at first, but my mother was really committed and pushed us to incorporate composting as a habit, explaining the benefits both for the environment and for our own garden. This compost bin reminds me of my grandma and brings a feeling of tenderness, because of her willingness to try composting just with a few items she had at home. This detail about my grandma that my mother shared really proves that there is no need to get into complicated procedures in order to be a little bit friendlier towards our planet. At the same time, it is some kind of symbol that represents how this practice evolved within my family, and that there is no such thing as barriers between generations. Whatever gaps exist may be easily closed, in some cases just by communicating with each other and trying to get the best out of every generation.