Until the last week of the final September of the decade, now ended, relations between teenagers and septuagenarians were generally, at least, on civil grounds. Not anymore! On September 23, in a lobby of the UN, more than a few camera operators captured a picture that spoke considerably more than the typical thousand words most images hope to capture. They captured a titanic conflict of wills. Less than a year ago, only a handful of people on the planet had ever heard of the teenager. At the same time, the septuagenarian was more than a household name. Yet, in that immortalized moment, the essence of our time was captured in a non-verbal confrontation of world-views whose resolution is the defining work of the next decade and of which the outcome will define the futures of generations to come. By the time the new decade now begun is completed – a mere ten years from now – the septuagenarian will no longer occupy the spotlight as he does now, and the teenager will have embodied the life-work of a generation. My vote for image that will define the next decade is the interaction, in all its forms, of Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. The former reaching for the future, while the latter, seeking with all the might of an incumbent, to preserve the past. Time is not on anyone’s side.
For most of my professional career, I have been engaged in either of two primary tasks; to preserve something that has been ‘successful’ or to build something new. On our farm, the growth of new life always happens at the expense of old life. Trees fall and decay into forest humus. The frost renders what were once green shoots into next year’s compost. Sadly, the wise and seasoned ram of my small flock of sheep had his neck broken by his upstart son, as an unfortunate conflict arose. This natural order is not always kind to the old, as it yields its fruit to the young. And so it must be with businesses. Those deemed ‘too big to fail’ are burdened by a DNA in their culture that was wonderful for growth but became a liability in later years. Yet, large historically successful businesses pay a great deal of money to their executives and to consultants like me to help keep them alive for longer, for just one more year, one more quarter of solid earnings. Which, of course, is why we prop up things that would be much better allowed to decay or to change. Especially if they happen to control the votes in a few key swing states in a country that still thinks it leads the world…only it doesn’t, not morally, anyway.
A stare-down in a lobby of the UN between two protagonists is hardly a moment in history. Yet these are not mere actors in roles, not even just earnest individual citizens with a cause, they, together, represent an iconic struggle between a past that has stripped our fragile planet of its wealth and re-distributed it with earth-shattering consequences. The relative failure of COP-25, the recently completed climate conference, is an inevitable step towards the building of a fault-line between generations. A big change is not linear, it grinds at inertia and then explodes, shattering established order as it races for a new equilibrium. While we might wait for “the Big One” to dislodge California, we are in the midst of a global “Big One” as one generation, seeing its future consumed by its present, seeks to wrestle control of the planet’s future from those who will not experience the disruption ahead. As a member of the once fêted, now thought fetid, boomer generation, I can think of no more important challenge than supporting our young leaders as they seek to alter the trajectory of our planet, hurtling towards its collision with a ‘tragedy of the commons.’
This decade of the “20’s” will be marked in history as the time when we seriously engaged climate change, or we failed. The science will never be precise enough to overcome the emotion of fear and greed. Response to climate change is not a debate of only reason, for reason will always be vulnerable to more reason. Action on climate change is not demanded by science alone but by risk mitigation and morality. Greta was right…”How dare you!…it is the moral injustice of stealing from a future generation what can be consumed today without regard for its potential consequences. Can reason alone adequately respond to the grandparent who dares to steal the food from their grandchild’s home? No.
For myself, and I am blessed with six such small people in my life, this decade of the twenties must be about just one aim, to empower and equip the emerging generation with all that I can find to give them…just as it has always been. Please join in. If you, like me, have been around a while, then encourage some young leader this week. Become for them a ‘living soil’ in which they can take root and grow and flourish. This interaction need not be a competition between generations, but a collaboration. It requires the attitude of a steward from those with experience, someone who is willing to use all at their disposal to shepherd and lift new growth, new ideas, and new leaders. And from those of the new generation, it requires empathy, humility, and the willingness to honour those who lift you up. So if you can feel the fire emerging in your youthful belly, then as my fellow Brits would say, “crack on!”, soak up all the experience you can gather from others and as I was once encouraged, ‘illegitimi non carborundum’!