Why the American Climate Corps Looks Ageist to Me
The Biden administration’s new youth-skewed program is admirable, but needs to be more welcoming to older Americans
When the Biden Administration announced the American Climate Corps in late September, it said the program was designed "to train young people in clean energy, conservation and climate-resilience skills, create good-paying jobs and tackle the climate crisis." It's a joint project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Departments of Labor, Interior, Energy and Agriculture and the hub, AmeriCorps.
My immediate reaction, as a 67-year-old boomer: The idea of a Climate Corps — it's a jobs program, not a volunteer program — is commendable, if not overdue. But pitching it to, and for, "young people," smacks of ageism and is a missed chance to involve Americans of all ages in helping to fix an existential global problem.
Several environmental and intergenerational activists share my grievance.
Overlooking Older Adults
"What drives me crazy about the climate community is they overlook the resource that older adults are," said Mick Smyer, founder and CEO of Growing Greener, told me. "We bring to the table experience and passion, and we are looking for a sense of purpose in this phase of life."
"We bring to the table experience and passion, and we are looking for a sense of purpose in this phase of life."
Eunice Lin Nichols, co-CEO of CoGenerate, a nonprofit that unites older and younger generations to solve problems, said: "As America becomes the most age-diverse society ever, we have an unprecedented opportunity to form an equally age-diverse American Climate Corps that reflects the communities being served, anchored by young people, but powerfully enhanced by older adults."
Karl Pillemer, creator of Cornell University's Retirees in Service to the Environment program, calls the American Climate Corps' youth-driven mission "a lost opportunity," adding that "a program like this should absolutely be age-integrated; it would be substantially stronger."
Ken Dychtwald, CEO and founder of AgeWave, a research and consulting firm on aging, asks: "Why is it when we think of improving our environment and training people to make contributions, we only think of young people? We should think of people of all ages. Imagine a multigenerational corps working to build a better environment; that would be such a beautiful thing."
An Advocate for Youth
But environmental activist Bill McKibben, who launched the Third Act movement uniting people over 60 with younger ones to protect our planet and society, thinks the American Climate Corps is "a great idea." Said McKibben: "I think it should be mostly kids. They're the ones who are going to have to learn these set of skills."
A White House spokeswoman told The New York Times that not all parts of the American Climate Corps would have age limits.
But the Corps announcement left no question which generation was core.
The words "young," "youth," "next generation" and "new generation" appeared 14 times in the program's fact sheet. AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith calls the American Climate Corps "a bold and necessary response to the concerns of young people across America." There was no mention of older adults in the American Climate Corps announcement.
Clearly, however, the American Climate Corps is proving to be enticing to young Americans.
Though the administration hoped to mobilize 20,000 people in the first year, more than 42,000 have applied. Said Trevor Dolan, the industry and workforce policy lead for Evergreen Action: "The proof is in the pudding: America's young people are ready to fight the climate crisis."
The Myth of Uncaring Older Adults
So are many boomers and Gen Xers, contrary to the ageist mythology suggesting that older adults don't care about preserving the planet.
A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found 57% of boomers (plus those older) and 63% of Gen Xers said climate "should be the top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations;" 67% of Gen Z said so. Nearly two-thirds of boomers and older respondents (63%) were worried about global warming compared with 71% of Gen Z and Millennials.
"We really believe that every Californian has something to contribute, and when we say 'every Californian,' that means young Californians and older Californians."
At Third Act's March 2023 Washington, D.C. protest targeting big banks financing fossil fuel projects, elder demonstrators came out in force, sitting in rocking chairs. The New York Times called it the "Rocking Chair Rebellion."
One reason some older Americans do want to help counteract climate change is because, as Danielle Arigoni writes in her new book, "Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation," increased age amplifies vulnerabilities that "intersect with climate change in very real ways."
Older people "are just about the most vulnerable population to the effects of climate change," said Pillemer, the Cornell professor. Globally, heat-related deaths among people aged 65 and over have risen by 70% in two decades, according to the World Health Organization.
Another reason: Many boomers and Gen Xers were environmental activists when they were young. I recall the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was a teen spending weekends volunteering at my local recycling center.
A third reason: some older Americans believe part of their legacy is making the world better for future generations.
Who's Invited into State Programs
Ten states have similar versions of the American Climate Corps. When I visited their websites, I saw a few were specifically for young people but others (the nation's first, California, plus Maryland and Minnesota) were at least partially for all ages.
"We really believe that every Californian has something to contribute, and when we say 'every Californian,' that means young Californians and older Californians," said Josh Fryday, chief service officer at California Volunteers, the state umbrella program that runs its Climate Corps. "Our Climate Corps does not have any age restrictions on it."
California's site even has a dropdown menu for Seniors. (Fryday couldn't explain, however, why his office's press release said California Volunteers was tasked "with recruiting young Californians to engage in public service.")
Genesis of the Climate Corps
So, why is the American Climate Corps being sold as a youth program? The answer lies partly with its genesis and proponents.
Ninety years ago, FDR's New Deal launched the Civilian Climate Conservation Corps, a voluntary work relief program for young, unemployed, unmarried men. Women were allowed in later. In the 1960s, JFK introduced the Peace Corps, largely the province of young volunteers (their current average age: 28).
In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sponsored the Green New Deal and its Civilian Climate Corps — a $30 billion jobs program.
"Older adults are eager to get involved. And when you give them the tools, they run with it."
That legislation didn't pass. But a version of the current Corps — promoted heavily by youth-oriented environmental activist groups like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action — made it into Biden's 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
"After years of demonstrating and fighting for a Climate Corps, we turned a generational rallying cry into a real jobs program that will put a new generation to work stopping the climate crisis," the Sunrise Movement's executive director Varshini Prakash told AP.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) pulled the Corps idea out of the Inflation Reduction Act, but President Biden revived it in a smaller fashion as the American Climate Corps (budget: not yet revealed) through an Executive Order.
Make Climate Corps More Inclusive
Smyer believes the Biden administration should change its climate change messaging to be more welcoming to people of all ages.
"It's really important to counter the intergenerational warfare or older-generation climate denial theme that's out there," he said. "The work I'm doing shows older adults are eager to get involved. And when you give them the tools, they run with it."
"The climate crisis affects us all. Young people shouldn't have to tackle it alone."
Dychtwald and Pillemer concur.
"Maybe some who are climate-concerned have worked as gardeners or florists or builders and would be fantastic assets to a Climate Corps," Dychtwald said. "They could serve as mentors to young people. What a wonderful intersectionality could be liberated."
Noted Pillemer: "Offering this as paid employment as an encore career would bring out lots of older people."
McKibben and Lin Nichols said they'd be happy if boomers joined the American Climate Corps. Said Lin Nichols, the CoGenerate CEO: "The climate crisis affects us all. Young people shouldn't have to tackle it alone."
A big, intergenerational national service and volunteering program is exactly what the More Perfect bipartisan campaign for democratic renewal just proposed on Thursday, October 19.
Its "Ask and All" initiative, led by 10 groups, including CoGenerate and Points of Light, calls for increasing youth civilian national service from roughly 80,000 positions today to 1 million by 2033 and increasing national service and civic engagement among older Americans from today's 140,000 to half a million by 2033.
"We must dramatically expand opportunities for cogeneration: young people and older Americans joining forces to serve side by side," the Ask and All report says.