When Nick De Carlo retired it wasn’t the life of leisure that beckoned, but a return to the frontlines of activism from his younger days.
“I was involved in the anti-war movement and anti-racist and the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s. That’s what first got me started,” says Mr. De Carlo, 75.
Today, the climate crisis has the former union employee’s attention.
“I felt the need to take up this issue because it’s so urgent,” says Mr. De Carlo, co-chairperson of Ontario-based Seniors for Climate Action Now (SCAN). “Governments, not just in Canada but around the world, are not taking the type of action that’s needed. There’s going to have to be a movement similar to the movements that happened in the 60s and similar to other movements that have happened since to force that change and we see ourselves as part of that movement.”
Founded in January 2021, SCAN has grown to 175 members who range in age from their 50s to 80s. It is one of the dozens of climate action groups for seniors that have sprung up across the country.
These groups make up just some of the army of seniors dedicating their retirement years to social causes including the climate crisis, reducing homelessness, food bank support and myriad others. Boomer activism, whether on the frontlines of the climate protests or combatting homelessness, has the potential to be quite impactful.
It is an influential generation, in part due to its sheer numbers. Eighteen per cent of the Canadian population was aged 65 and over in 2020 and that is expected to grow to 24 per cent by the end of the 2030s, according to government data. Boomers also vote in much larger proportions than other demographics and are much wealthier, controlling an estimated one-third of the country’s financial assets.
At SCAN, activities range from attending protests to writing government policy briefs. In addition, some members perform street-art skits about the climate emergency, while others produce webinars and educational tools to mobilize other seniors and the general public.
“We are getting people who were activists in the 60s, and we’re getting people who’ve been activists in the entire time since,” Mr. De Carlo says. “And we’re getting people without a history of activism but who are concerned that something has to happen. There’s a huge pool of talent among seniors, and particularly retired seniors, that can be brought together and organized.”
Boomer activism isn’t limited to the frontlines. Tim Nash, the founder of Good Investing, which promotes socially responsible investing, says he is seeing more of an activist bent among his retiree clients. Many have been environmentalists for decades and have struggled with investing because of the lack of green options.
“Some would just sort of have to plug their nose and invest in all the nasty stuff because that was, for a long time, the only way to do it. They didn’t find that there were options for them,” Mr. Nash says.
“Or a lot of them just sat on cash that they never wanted to invest because they could never bring themselves to participate in such a destructive part of the economy.”
He says they now have options for investments, given the growing number of sustainable investment products on the market, and take advantage.
“Probably the biggest issue is climate change,” Mr. Nash says. “I think a lot of boomers are thinking about the world that they’re going to be leaving behind, specifically from a climate change perspective, worried about their legacy.”
It’s not just activism but volunteerism more generally that appeals to Canadians born in 1965 and earlier. Thirty-nine per cent of boomers formally volunteer, averaging 153 hours a year, according to Statistics Canada. Among people born in 1945 and earlier, 32 per cent formally volunteer, averaging 222 hours a year.
“The size of the baby boomer volunteer population, combined with the high number of volunteer hours that they contribute, means that baby boomers contribute the most total volunteer hours. It’s the equivalent of nearly 300,000 full-time jobs year-round,” says Megan Conway, chief executive officer of Volunteer Canada.
The pandemic presented some challenges for mature volunteers, but they quickly adapted to new technologies and new ways of delivering services, she says.
In the end, that opened up new opportunities for mature volunteers.
The causes and organizations they support no longer have to be necessarily place-based, Ms. Conway says. Technology means seniors can get involved in causes in communities across the country.
Canadians are healthy and living longer, she points out, and there has been much written about the impact of those over age 65.
“Many people are making their biggest contributions after the age of 65,” she says. “We need to rethink how we involve older Canadians in ways that are meaningful because they’re living longer.”