Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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25 Nov 2011

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…

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


michael Dunwell
25 Nov 8:16pm

Much food for thought!
Engaging younger people: when we went into the local community school to talk to 12 year olds about climate change they responded to the topics but we don’t know what happened afterwards. This was in class. When we got them a polytunnel to grow food in, their grades in Biology went up and the department was given a technician on the back of it.
CSAs and local grower groups have all ages mixed together. This is community compost – town or country.
About Occupy, the determination to make people face issues without damaging and hurting is a mature (40+?) stance and undertaken by countless Transition workshops all over the world. In our town I sense that this determination is moving toward involvement in local politics because we are profoundly dissatisfied with dead wood in there. Some of the soldier required here, strange oaths and all.
When you are old you have time to read Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation and understand that separating people from their communities has caused endless havoc; Transition is really about this, isn’t it?

Alan Brown
25 Nov 8:52pm

Currently working with Young Scot on some ideas for youth engagement. Driven by different motivators at that age, it’s about connecting on their level. For now this is just developing opportunities to learn about and volunteer with Transition/[like minded groups] for points which they collect for use. Much like RockCorps. Just an experiment, but it might be an opener, for a different way of connecting with the younger generation.

Francie Delaney
25 Nov 9:29pm

I believe each age lends its own unique appeal to the earth and any organizations hoping to be in harmony with it. Infants not exposed to nature (as is happening more & more these days) will not have the experience & therefore, less likely the compassion later on, to seek ways to live in harmony with earth. At school age, children can be children & still show responsible ways to live with the right guidance – in face, if they learn responsible behaviors then, they tend to be more eager to chip in /do their part later on. (Alot of “missed” opportunities occur later on if this important step hasn’t been instilled during the earlier years!) We also need the energy & enthusiasm of the teenagers – if Transition is portrayed with great zeal & gives answers to their quests for independent actions, we can engage many youth. Young adults, open to quests for adventure, could easily align with Transition, especially if put out there as a challenge. Then, we have the more seasoned adults who are analyzing or re-analyzing their lives, seeking “truth” – what better “fit” for Transition. And on & on. I love the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child” I see that applying to Transition as well.

Finn Jensen
25 Nov 9:36pm

Incredible Edible Todmorden has a wealth of experience in engaging all age groups. One of their members, Nick (his email address is on the IET website), has set up an educational site in Walsden where school children come regularly in school time. There are plans to develop apprentiships in food growing/farming with local colleges – preparing youth for employment.

David Eggleton
26 Nov 12:05am

If you are too young and unemployed to have a (connection to) place, Transition makes less sense than Occupy, and vice versa. However, Transition would benefit from steadily “taking in” Occupiers, because every place finally must be occupied.

Jay D
26 Nov 12:49am

I imagine the age of those attracted to transition will depend on the perception of what the ‘vision’ is…….growing up is giving up!…or to put it another way;
“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”
My observations would suggest that the occupy demographic is much wider in age and class (for want of a better word)than transition’s and that this has something to do with idealism and for how long, and to what degree, one has been able to hold onto those ideals amongst the madness all around.
@ Michael. I would suggest that during our youth we are quite aware of the need for, and indeed live a life of, community and that if it weren’t for the alienating/seperateness of the way our society encourages us to become as we ‘grow up’ such reading in our dotage would be unnecessary.

26 Nov 10:50pm

Its about ways of communication too – we’re finding young families prefer facebook, blogs, emails etc – can’t always attend get together, but want to be in the loop and drop in when something suits them. Older people prefer the face to face meetings and coffee get together to chat and catch up. Also attracting a LOT of people who are looking to move to a place where there is a sense of community and TTs are filling this gap here in Australia at the moment.

michael Dunwell
27 Nov 7:26pm

Interestingly, Jay D, that’s what Joseph Stiglitz said in his Introduction to the Polanyi book, The sad thing is that it was written so long ago: 1944. Seems nobody took any notice.

27 Nov 8:24pm

all the world is indeed a stage
and we are merely players
performers and portrayers
each anothers audience
outside this gilded cage
love and light to all

28 Nov 2:45am

Please come into Occupy! We need leaders of ecological transition to bring heated focus on environmental damage and energy solutions.

29 Nov 8:43am

Thanks for writing this.

I was surprised to see that folks in three cities in the US on a Transition listserv had talked of joint efforts or discussions between their Occupy sites & local Transition groups.

I think it must be hard to be young, and see the massive disinvestment in the future going on all around. I’m not sure any generation in history has faced this so massively.

Joanne Poyourow
29 Nov 5:11pm

I’m not so eager to jump aboard the “Sometimes it is suggested that Transition only appeals to older people.” I think we’re all far too early in the game to make that call.

Early Transition guidelines wisely urged us to start where we were (geographically), to start making change in our own backyard in our own local communities, as contrasted with traditional environmentalism which was so often concerned about wildlands “over there.”

This “start where you are” applies to age as well. The people who heard about Transition first were necessarily a certain demographic — highly literate, quite intellectual, accustomed to systems thinking, internet connected, financially stable enough to have leisure time to think about world issues, and (in the U.S. case) sufficiently adventuresome to read international stuff not just more-local stuff. We started where we were, and as a result that long list describes a lot of the people currently involved in this early stage of the Transition movement.

It takes quite a lot of time to bridge from “where you are” into other, differing, pools of people. It is much easier to see when you are talking geography — for instance the spread of Transition ideas across the massive L.A. basin. It can be mapped, and you can see a visual spread. (link to L.A. maps from here First it began in one small corner of the area, then spread gradually. It’s much harder to spot this with age demographics — I’m not sure it can be visually presented well.

Another take on this comes from my parenting experience. Years ago I started the local homeschool support network. At that time my cofounders and I all had kids under 10 yrs old. Newcomers would come to the network and say “where are all the teens?” So I started trying — unsuccessfully — to create gatherings for teens, even though at that point I didn’t have teens of my own. A mom of teens came to me and gently coached: “Joanne, it won’t be successful until a mom of teens creates it.” Part of the success is the investment in it, the being in that age/coping with that age, right now in real time.

Translating this to a Transition concept, we will have marginal success creating (forcefeeding?) Transition events for other demographics. It’s a nice idea to push for diverse demographics, but it doesn’t work all that well. Recall the “teach a man to fish” proverb — until desire to create positive change wells up within a population, we’re still in the realm of “eat for a day” rather than for a lifetime. It will only fly when the drive to transition — the drive to begin changing — wells up within that population.

It takes a special someone to grab a new idea and run with it. What I mean is explained by Atkisson’s Amoeba of Cultural Change In the case of age demographics, we are awaiting the Change Agents who are in those other (younger) age bands, who can translate the sometimes-esoteric language of the (admittedly middle-aged) Inventors into something that is meaningful and pertinent for the Mainstream of their own Age of Man.

I’m thinking that in some ways we can try to attract those earliest Change Agents by delving into communications technologies which are more comfortable to their age than to ours. (Example: I prefer blogging but my teen son is now pushing me to dive into Twitter.) But ultimately, creating traction within that new demographic is dependent on the “locals” — the people who are in that demographic.

The Transition Ingredients are brilliant – they are defined, but loosely enough that they apply to such a multitude of approaches. I have hope — we will see it yet. Occupy is (was?) perhaps a precursor to it. Now we’ll see if the Occupy people will begin to create any tangible, proactive lifestyle changes (Macy’s #2 out of all their protest emotion. When the energy shifts from protest energy into releasing the old and building the New, and some positive building-of-the-New action wells forth — at that point we will begin to see the presence of new Ages of Man in their own unique interpretation of “Transition”. Whatever “Transition” is or has been, will probably dramatically change and evolve at that point.

That energy shift hasn’t happened yet from OccupyLA (police are still closing it down today), and I can’t speak for other locations.

30 Nov 5:20pm

There is a much, much larger issue here, which is closely related. One of the transitions we must make is from our maximally compressed / full-speed at all times /sprint until you die life styles to a much calmer, and slower, life tempo.

Our children are thrown into a world where schools now adopt the techniques developed in advertising, to capture maximum attention- with minimal sound bites aimed at the very shortest attention spans. We’re told, repeatedly, that children cannot hear you, are not interested in what you say- unless it’s in their own language, compressed for tweeting, and in 60 characters or less. And preferably with a 90 decibel sound track.

Absurd; wrong, and disastrous- but also a barrier.

I think, to find ways to engage the young in Transition; Transition should first develop ways to simply engage youngsters – in anything at all. Teach them to enjoy “slow”. And perhaps the light will dawn. All TTs will need child care services, yes? I think there would be room for a little “slow teaching” to become part of that; both for the children and the care-givers.

Diana Korchien
30 Nov 6:51pm

I can only speak in wonder and gratitude of the path taken by our initiative, Transition Leytonstone. Back in 2009 we had a core group aged between 40 and 60. Living in an urban and highly diverse communty, We had always been conscious of the need to reach out to everybody, whatever their race, creed, nationality or age – and so we’ve always actively sought engagement from others on their own terms. Some people came and went, dipped into Transition and then out of it again (age being pretty much irrelevant to this kind of inconsistent and uncommitted behaviour) – but in the past 6 months or so, a steady stream of 25-35-year-olds has come along to join us and to contribute a variety of skills and great commitment. I have no doubt at all that we will continue to attract ever-younger members, as our range of projects and activities expands. I think we’ve had to learn a lot of patience in building our local Transition community, but it’s taking a truly beautiful shape.

6 Dec 2:18pm

I think that babiues are the key … it is the babies that need us to act now, and adults can be reached really effectively through their concern for their babies. Whilst a baby can’t contribute, it is the baby that drives parents to join Transition.

So let’s hear it for babies!