I was a curious kid. I kept a journal in elementary school, full of lists of questions: Why do people yell timber when a tree falls? Why do people say “as cute as a button”? Some (or many) of the questions I mulled sound silly, but they reveal some important things. For one, I’ve always been pulled toward unanswered questions. And secondly, older people around me did not think I needed or wanted complete answers.
I was in my first-grade classroom in Queens on September 11, 2001, when the twin towers fell in Manhattan. We all knew something was wrong, but no one told us what; that just heightened our anxiety and confusion. Things were just happening to us, and there was nothing we were expected to understand about why it was happening.
I thought about that earlier this year when I talked to Charlie Abrams and Jeremy Clark, two high-school freshmen from Portland, Oregon, who are also climate policy lobbyists. The pair coined a term—the “affected generation”—to describe their cohort: young people who can expect to live to see the worst effects of climate change. They’re the ones who will be affected by problems others have created, and they aren’t satisfied with the answers they’ve been given about the status quo. Abrams and Clark testified to support clean energy legislation, successfully lobbied to require climate change education in Portland public schools, and started a blog to educate others about climate change.
This year, we saw a lot of young people like these two voicing their frustrations about the world they’re being handed—and, increasingly, older people are being forced to pay attention. Take Juliana v. United States, the lawsuit first filed in 2015 by a group of youthful plaintiffs. The suit alleges the U.S. government hasn’t done a sufficient amount to protect future generations from climate change. This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court refused the Trump administration’s request to halt the lawsuit. (Both the Obama and Trump administrations made repeated requests in lower courts to dismiss the lawsuit.)
Elsewhere, youthful voices are becoming more prominent in environmental activism. A teen-led group to fight climate change called Zero Hour was profiled the New York Times. Over the summer, I reported on how 14-year old Stella Bowles worked to get the LaHave River in Nova Scotia, Canada, cleaned up—starting at age 11. In this process of youth leadership grabbing more media attention, the dynamic of the affected generation working on problems that that they played no role in causing has become more explicit.
Perhaps nowhere was this more clear than in the issue of gun violence. In February, a gunman killed 17 students and staff and injured another 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—one of what would become a grim chain of mass shootings at schools in 2018. But the young survivors of this incident didn’t disappear once the news cycle moved on; instead, they organized. An outspoken group of Parkland student activists took to social media, tangled with the NRA and GOP, and organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. in March, a gathering that was joined by more than 800 protests in every U.S. state and around the world. With many thousands of young people across the United States, they demanded answers to a question that lawmakers have manage to dodge for decades: Why should gunshots punctuate our school years?
As many pundits pointed out, it’s mostly kids in cities, especially youth of color, who had not been heard on this issue. “Kids in urban schools want to know, where’s everybody been?” as a Washington Post op-ed asked in March. Indeed, students in Chicago started the Wear Orange campaign several years ago in 2013 to raise awareness about gun violence after their friend Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed at age 15. But it took a wave of post-Parkland activism to push a wave of gun-control legislation nationwide: According to the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 67 gun-safety bills were signed in 26 states, plus D.C., in 2018.
Both gun violence and climate change are intensely polarizing issues among Americans, a situation that’s helped fuel years of inaction and silence, as well as a certain resignation that these are essentially intractable problems that resist political solutions. But young people unfamiliar with that history can see them for what they are—urgent concerns that demand immediate action.
Let’s face it: There have always been young people who speak up and try to stir the public into awareness of the issues that they deal with. For the most part, older people just haven’t been listening. But this year, some politicians and journalists have made more of an effort to engage with young people as they speak for themselves rather than merely talking about them as if they’re in another room and can’t be allowed into the public sphere.
In part, this shift reflects the growing political might of younger Americans. Millennials are set to become the largest bloc of eligible voters in U.S. history, though their turnout currently lags behind older generations. That might be changing: Young adult turnout in the 2018 midterm election increased by 188 percent in early voting, compared with the 2014 midterms. Increasingly, lawmakers ignore the voices of the young at their own peril.
But their willingness to pay more attention to younger people may also reflect something else: an acknowledgement of culpability. “The adults know that we’re cleaning up their mess,” as Parkland student Cameron Kasky told Time.
Members of the affected generation may not know exactly how the world they’re inheriting got this way, but they also aren’t waiting around for someone else to offer solutions. Like me, I’m sure many are tired of being told they’ll get it when they’re older.