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Understanding the Greta Effect
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 30 September 2019

In August 2018, a teenager from Stockholm decided it was time for action on climate change. 

She had very little to use as leverage in support of her cause, so she went on strike. She refused to attend school, setting up a one-person demonstration outside the Swedish Parliament. 

Since that time, Greta Thunberg has found herself at the apex of an international movement. Her recent speech to the United Nations inspired some who watched it and saddened others. 

Her calls for climate action have proven provocative but effective in terms of increasing public awareness. Whether they will, in the end, provide more heat than light only time will tell.

Many people struggle to understand the Greta effect. Some, while admiring Ms Thunberg’s vision and tenacity, are concerned for her health, especially since her quest became a media phenomenon. 

To some degree, I share that concern. Greta’s story is front-page material, a narrative of David versus Goliath proportions. However, at the centre of the hurricane sits a young woman. 

Popularity and obscurity sit perilously close together in our age of short attention spans and the whimsical group-think of social media.

From a monetary perspective, there are vast profits to be made for alternative energy companies, as traditional fuel providers are vilified. There is potential for corporate manipulation of a cause - and its spokesperson.

None of this, however, is the subject of this article. 

Greta Thunberg is now synonymous with Generation Z activism. 

The fact that Greta sits, in terms of age and global recognition, near the top of her generation, may help to explain her unusual commitment to the cause - and its impact.

I have been engaged in generational research since the 1980s, partly because generational change is a major factor in shaping the future. 

I’ve found that each successive generation carries with it a unique set of characteristics, which have been shaped by particular sets of cultural experiences and influences.

Each generation rebels against certain traits of the preceding generation, seeing its role as making up for the deficiencies of its elders.

Much is written about the Millennial cohort - aka Generation Y. Its oldest members are now approaching early middle age. They are, generically speaking, located somewhere between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. 

However, relatively little is written about Generation Z, which is fast making its move on the outside track.

I prefer to call it Generation Edge, for two reasons. First, the ‘Z’ designation ties them too closely to Gen X and Y that went before. 

Second, they stand on the edge of some of the greatest challenges and opportunities to face humankind in the past century or more.

To anyone aged over forty, Millennials and Edgers may look much the same. They are not. 

Unlike Millennials, Edgers generally display low levels of trust in institutions. They’ve grown up watching banks being bailed out by taxpayers, while their CEOs collect record bonuses. 

They read about mega-corporations that pay no tax, while their parents’ earning power drops, despite their long working hours. 

Global research suggests that Edgers are much less trusting of institutions than Millennials were at their age. They are more likely to distrust promises made by institutional leaders and are far less idealistic in their outlook. 

Wary of political promises and grand-sounding dreams, their default outlook is pragmatic. The question they ask of any leader is this: ‘How are you going to make the dream, the pledge, a reality?’

Despite impressions left by their global climate strikes, Generation Edgers are not for the most part rebellious for the sake of rebellion. They see themselves as reformers. Rebellion is a means to an end.

In light of the above, generically speaking, this generation has been slow to exhibit any interest in national politics. In the UK, their interest has been piqued by Brexit, but that is an issue-based interest.

They are becoming aware of global politics, based on specific concerns, such as climate change.

Until recently, Edgers have shown little tendency to engage with large-scale collective demonstrations, which owes something to their age.

For some time, though, they have been urging and pursuing reform via the digital space. Digital technology provides them with platforms for righting wrongs. 

Generation Edgers feel they have a responsibility to change things. Where once whistle-blowers might have been the villains in any story, this generation sees them as role models who encourage others to fix broken systems. 

The message for political, business and community leaders of all stripes is this: you can no longer expect loyalty to institutions as a given. 

Neither can you expect young people to sound off in the digital arena, but otherwise stay out of sight. If nothing else, the climate strikes have put paid to that notion.

Leaders must learn to engage with the criticism of young people in constructive ways. This does not mean simply cow-towing to demands or currying favour through photo opportunities with social media ‘influencers’ - or climate activists.

At times, leadership will need to patiently - but not patronisingly - challenge the thinking of Edgers, or correct misconceptions where they exist. 

Generation Edge will not be pacified by false expressions of agreement. They have grown up with the most sophisticated special effects in movie history; they know better than most the difference between a deep fake and the real article.

Parents, too, need to front up, taking responsibility for providing proactive guidance, rather than attempting to become peers to their teenage children. 

A recent report suggested that parents are seeking the help of professional coaches because their children are ‘triple screening’ - that is, watching laptops, tablets and phones at the same time.

Why the need for coaching on this? Why not simply play the role most parents have played for millennia? 

Granted, we suffer today from a breakdown of the extended family and globalisation means that we tend to live further away from relatives than our parents’ generation. Some parents now find themselves without any hands-on access to family elders, who might once have provided advice and support.

Technology does offer us wonderful tools to help us provide oversight and contact points for our children. In the end, though, gadgets can only augment human contact. In an age of ‘high tech’, teens need ‘high touch’ and real-world face-time more than ever.

Generation Edgers will not respect acquiescence when they’re looking to their parents, teachers and leaders to provide role modelling and the benefits of experience.

Leaders and parents also need to heed what this generation says in the digital space. This is where much of their activism begins. 

It is where nascent ideas will be personally and collectively developed over time. It is where future campaigns will be organised.

We must also grasp that Edgers are more likely to display self-reliance than Millennials. Studies have shown that they already expect to meet opposition in the pursuit of their goals. They also believe that obstacles must be met with strength.

Leaders, educators and public service providers will need to avoid a ‘nanny state’ approach to Edgers, allowing them more room to work some things out for themselves. Any attempts at spoon-feeding are likely to be met with defiance.

Finally, in seeking to understand the mindset of Edgers, it is helpful to realise that on some moral and ethical issues they are more conservative than Millennials. 

A 2014 report from the UK’s National Health Service showed that the proportion of under-20s who said they had taken illegal drugs in the month previous had halved compared to a decade earlier. 

At that time, only two drugs listed as being on the rise among Edgers and both were legal. They were Ritalin and ModaSinil, both of which are stimulants that are sometimes used to power students through long study sessions. 

The Greta Thunberg effect is, like most large-scale movements, partly a result of the right person and the right cause converging at the right time. 

The response to it, particularly among young people, is mystifying or concerning to some adults. Yet it is understandable through the lens of not only climate concern but generational traits.

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