Youth and Elders Together: Strategically Key?

In my first couple of years of progressive activism in the late 60’s, many of those I worked with who were also young took a pretty dismissive view of elder activists. And it wasn’t just elders. “Don’t trust anyone over 30”– that was a widespread point of view.

As I experienced it, I think a large part of the reason for this belief was the reality of an “old left” that was not just small but top-down and bureaucratic in its ways of functioning. In addition, McCarthyism and attacks on members of the Communist Party, the major national group on the Left, begun in earnest under Democratic President Harry Truman soon after World War II ended, had a huge impact. Also impactful was the revelation by the Soviet government after Stalin died in 1953 of what had been obscured up to that point in time about what life was like under his 25 years as Soviet strong man.

As a result, many of my generation believed we could be most effective more-or-less on our own, with our own youth culture and our own ways of taking action against injustice and war.

Today it is different. Within more than a few sectors of the overall progressive activist movement, the young and the old and those in between are increasingly joining forces. One big example is the climate justice movement where, last September, an age-diverse and racially-diverse coalition of groups successfully organized upwards of 70,000 people for a massive, spirited and impactful March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City.

Another example is the movement to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, planned to carry fracked methane gas through West Virginia, Virginia and into North Carolina. As reported in a recent article in Inside Climate News:

“The opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline has attracted an age-diverse base, including older Americans who have been strong proponents of the nation’s climate movement. Some groups, like Third Act and Elders Climate Action, are explicitly focused on mobilizing older activists while others, like Extinction Rebellion, have strong contingencies of movement elders, who sometimes have greater time and resources to engage in civil disobedience.”

Another group, Radical Elders, has emerged in the last couple of years. It played a leadership role pulling together progressive elders’ organizations into a contingent of hundreds marching during the March to End Fossil Fuels. As its name suggests, Radical Elders explicitly views the crises we are experiencing as systemic in their source and, therefore, systemic change is needed to solve them.

But is it really “strategic” to have a movement in which a significant number of youth and elders interact and work together? It’s a good thing, without question, but is it essential?

My view is that what is most strategic when it comes to building a movement which can bring about systemic change is the overcoming of the racism, sexism and other ideologies and practices that keeps potential allies separated. As I put it in my 21st Century Revolution book, “We must build a broadly-based, multi-racial, multi-issue, multi-gender popular alliance, uniting people of color, women, youth, LGBTQ people, trade unionists, farmers, small business people, people with disabilities, professionals and others.”  (p. 91)

But young people, especially in large numbers, bring an energy and a determination that is sometimes lacking among elders and others who have been beaten down, if not beaten up, by the oppressive, corporate-dominated system. And energy is critical, strategic.

Activist elders, conversely, even if feeling their age, can provide hope and inspiration to those much newer to progressive activism. They can show in practice that it is possible to avoid burnout and to stay in the struggle against injustice, inequality and war for decades.

It is so easy to feel despair in the world today given what is happening to it. Youth and elders joining together in action is a definite antidote, a practical application of Joe Hill’s famous words, “don’t mourn, organize.”

Elders who are retired and youth who are just getting started sometimes share being less weighed down by family or job obligations. They have more flexibility in terms of demands on their time. As stated by 81 year old Karen Bixler, arrested at an MVP action in Virginia in early March, “You get to a point where you really have nothing left to lose. We don’t have to worry about, ‘if I go to jail who is going to take care of my kids [or] if I’m looking for a job, how’s an arrest going to look on my record?’”

Or as the Radical Elders say, “we ain’t done yet!”

Ted Glick works with Beyond Extreme Energy and is president of 350NJ-Rockland. Past writings and other information, including about Burglar for Peace and 21st Century Revolution, two books published by him in 2020 and 2021, can be found at He can be followed on Twitter at Read other articles by Ted.