If we want change, young people have to do more than protest

If we want change, young people have to do more than protest
© Greg Nash

My generation is no stranger to vocalizing our concerns. Since the 2016 election, young people have turned out in droves for protests, and social media platforms, like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, have become tools for political mobilization. One of the “hottest issues” among my generation is the topic of climate change. There’s no question that young people want change and action on environmental challenges, but often, we’re going about it wrong.

For instance, young people still do not turn out to vote. In 2018, approximately 36 percent of eligible voters under the age of 29 voted. While this was a historic increase from 2014, the number still pales in comparison to 66 percent of eligible voters over the age of 65 voting. There’s work to be done to motivate our fellow Gen Z voters to actually go to the polls or mail in their ballots as Nov. 3 approaches rapidly. 

In contrast, thousands and thousands of young people have protested a variety of causes, including climate change, in recent years. To be clear, peaceful protesting is an inherent part of any democracy and should be encouraged, but in and of itself doesn’t directly enact change. If we’re serious about finding effective climate solutions, taking to the streets may send a message, but it doesn’t open a dialogue. We could be doing so much more. 


For many, regardless of age, feeling educated enough to cast a vote or take a stance can be daunting. With national politics as polarized and partisan as it is, some prefer to keep their heads down and focus on their day-to-day life. After all, as one person, it’s easy to feel like doing something about a problem wouldn’t even make a difference. In fact, half of Americans have simply stopped talking politics with others. It’s important that we as activists make advocacy more accessible to people who may be wary of getting started.

As an environmental activist, I am traveling the country this fall to meet with companies, elected officials and other leaders who are acting on the problems they see in their own communities. Their message for young people? Focus a bit less on activism, and shift the passion toward direct action. 

For starters, we have to talk to each other. Sitting down with, not yelling at, one’s elected officials is perhaps one of the most underrated forms of political engagement. Making your concerns known is important, but positive pressure on office-holders is oftentimes more effective than entitled demands. Having productive conversations may not be the sexiest way to enact change, but it works. You won’t agree on everything, but it’s certainly more effective than camping out in front of their offices in the Capitol for 12 hours. Over the course of the past five weeks on the road, elected officials at all levels have confirmed the importance of this.

Even outside of the political realm, there’s so much more that young people could do to signal to companies and industries that we want sustainability. Companies have to respond to consumer demands, and if enough consumers specifically purchase sustainable products or support companies that are actively pursuing climate-friendly practices, more and more companies will respond to that signal. This is often called “voting with your dollars,” and it’s effective. It’s why tech companies like Microsoft are working toward erasing its entire carbon footprint with carbon negative technologies. It’s why Starbucks and Coca-Cola have changed their product designs to reduce waste.

There’s not some magic action out there that will prompt a perfect solution to the environmental challenges we face, but young people have incredible power. Whether it’s hundreds of young entrepreneurs in the Boston area starting “climate-tech” companies with Greentown Labs, or young bipartisan-minded Congressional members like Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsHouse Democrats return to advance Biden's agenda in face of crises Biden surrenders Afghanistan to terrorists Moderates revolt on infrastructure in new challenge for Pelosi MORE, actions are already speaking louder than words. Our generation is so motivated to change the world, and with the right tactics, we can do just that.

Benji Backer is the founder and president of The Conservation Coalition (TCC). Follow him on Twitter @BenjiBacker.