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The seven ages of Transition

While there has been much discussion in terms of Transition and diversity over the past few years, little has been said about the issue of age. It’s not something we’ve explored here at Transition Culture in the past. Sometimes it is suggested that Transition only appeals to older people, whereas Occupy, for example, tends to attract more younger people. But is that the case? Is it that straightforward? How might Transition best serve people at the different stages in their lives, and what might they, in turn, bring to it? What are the things that attract people of different ages and what do they hope to get out of their engagement? I ask these questions by way of stimulating discussion, and thought a useful framing might be William Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man (with apologies to female readers for Shakespeare’s gender focus), from ‘As You Like It’. It begins:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages”.

Here’s Morgan Freeman reciting it for you just to set the mood:

So, let’s kick off with the first one.

“At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”.

Interesting male perspective on babies, who in my experience do a lot more than “mewling and puking” (how about “smiling and gurgling”, for example?), but anyway, other than joining their parents at events, there is not really a specific role that babies can actively play in Transition that I can think of, so let’s move onto the next one….

“Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school”.

I think this probably tells you more about Elizabethan schools than about the school-age children themselves, but this refers to the age of being at school. I think, from my experience working with this age group, that this falls into two halves. For primary school aged children, the best thing is not to talk too much about climate change, peak oil and so on, rather to focus on skills and on low-impact approaches to energy, food and travel just being an everyday part of life. Kids need that time in their life to be kids. At secondary age though, there is a lot that can be done, designing into their teaching experience the understanding of the world around them, good critical thinking skills, teaching ecological design, how change happens, the skills for personal resilience, feeling empowered by their educational experience, and feeling that they can shape how their school, their home life and their community develops.

An interest in activism and in changing the world starts to emerge, but often the thinking tends to be shorter term. As one 17 year old girl told me at our local school when we were doing an exercise about visioning a low carbon future “I only think as far ahead as ‘learn to drive, go to college. Learn to drive, go to college’”. The role of Transition here, it seems to me, is to input into how the school connects to the community, making sustainability part of the everyday experience, supporting young people with apprenticeships and other ways into the emerging Transition economy. However, people of this age, when they ‘get’ Transition, or engage with environmental issues, are really extraordinary….

“And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”.

This is the age of perhaps 18-22, which is about breaking away from the family, confronting our parents (not necessary literally, but psychologically), standing on our own ground, the age where “Be realistic, demand the impossible” feels an entirely reasonable ask, and where putting your body on the line feels a natural thing to do. When I was 18 I marched, I went on roads protests, I ran about a several hundred yards pursued by security guards in an attempt to gatecrash the launch of the much-resisted Bristol spine road (I had no idea what I would have done if they hadn’t caught me and I’d actually got there, probably rather sheepishly crept in at the back).

Had someone asked me to get involved in setting up a community energy company, I would have felt that that was way beyond me, I didn’t have the skills, the interest, the patience. I was fired by a sense of injustice, of anger, of a desire to rebuild the world from scratch. In terms of Transition, Transition Heathrow best capture this energy, it brings the aspects of Transition around growing food, working with the community, learning skills, but puts them in a context that is edgy, that has the frisson of making a bold statement on its own terms. If I were that age again (unlikely), I would more likely be attracted to Occupy than Transition, but I would find Transition’s analysis of things useful, and would see it as part of the larger movement for change.

This is an oft-explored tension within Transition, the extent to which it overtly embraces activism or not. Rather than being something that will ever be resolved, I think it will remain as one of those open questions, an edge with a lot of energy to it. In any Transition initiative, it is too simplistic to suggest that young people will engage only where a more radical edge can be created, but when I think of myself at that age, what attracted me to permaculture was that it had a very radical, playful edge to it (such as when Bill Mollison, after a withering take on the uselessness of lawn culture, plants the hazelnut in a lawn, stating “being a good urban guerrilla, we might start by putting a hazelnut in the lawn” at 2.20 into this video). For me, this is also very much present in Transition.

“Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth”.

I take this as referring to the span from the mid-twenties to the mid-forties. This is the time of having kids and raising a family (for some), of pursuing a career, setting up a home, working to build material security and so on. Here I think the reason that people engage with Transition shifts. Often having children brings the future, the future generations, into focus. Often projects such as eco-village and co-housing developments are initiated by people of this age (although all too often, sadly, the kids are grown up and have left home by the time the bloody thing gets built!). Food growing projects are also very attractive, as people want their kids to learn those skills and grow up surrounded by them. Often groups that set up Community Supported Agriculture schemes tend to be people with young families.

People with young children often learn to be very productive in very limited time, and to juggle many things. Often the very innovative ideas such as using social media to promote local currencies and other initiatives, and the sense of how the web can underpin this work will emerge from those in this age. They would tend to be more present and behind initiatives like the Brixton Pound, which is very funky and which uses social media in really creative and successful ways.

“And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part”.

Hmmm. Not so sure about the round belly bit, but I’d say here we move into the late forties, and into the fifties. Kids grown up, bit more time, life perhaps a bit less hectic (?). Sometimes this means that engaging in Transition is a great way of meeting people and building a social network that was previously much easier to achieve when you have young children. Often by this time people have amassed more in the way of practical skills, skills in managing/participating in groups, and more self knowledge, and have a degree more confidence that they can make things happen. In some places, Transition core groups might consist largely of people at this age, as they tend to have the time available to give to kicking things off, the experience that trying to change things can actually change things, and some of the skills that are needed.

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound”.

In Ireland, Mary Nally’s Third Age Foundation is a fantastic social enterprise that has created projects whereby older people can contribute their skills through a national helpline for older people, through welcoming and teaching English to migrants, and several other programmes too. For Transition initiatives, retired people also bring a great deal in terms of skills and time. Where Transition groups are trying to actively promote social enterprise, inviting retired people with a long experience in business to mentor new enterprises could work really well. Often it is retired people who have the time and skills (and the patience) to engage with the local council, for example, representing the Transition initiative in planning issues.

“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

The gifts that this age brings to Transition include a sharing of experience and memories that might be useful to those engaged in more practical Transition work. Indeed there is a case to say that as the economy continues to unravel, that part of the work of Transition initiatives will become offering care and support services to our elders.

I am aware that this piece has consisted of massive generalisations, but given that my research in Totnes found that those under 30 were not so well represented, and that being an observation in many (but by no means all) of the Transition initiatives I visit, I thought it might be worth looking into. Interestingly, in countries such as Spain and Portugal where the economic and job prospects are that much more precarious, there seem to be a lot more people involved with Transition. The creation of a more sustainable, more resilient future will need the input of people of all ages, and each will have a role to play. The aspects of Transition that appeal to someone in their 40s will not be the same as those that appeal to teenagers, but all those roles are vital. What I do see in many Transition groups is a very respectful space for all the generations to come together and work on a project that they feel excited about.

So, this has been one of those posts that is offered more as a conversation starter, rather than a complete argument. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts. How has your initiative managed to engage younger people? How does the range of people in your group represent the seven ages? Have you ever felt excluded from Transition because of your age, or that it was not relevant to you? How might that more direct approach represented by Occupy look in a Transition context? Can we design Transition in such a way that whatever age you are, you feel part of a dynamic and deep process that speaks to what you care about, the passion you bring and the skills you have? Over to you…

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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