Aspiration to Action: Gen Z’s Call for Change

The sustainability and climate change movement has gained momentum due to the enthusiastic voices of Generation Z. This generation, born between 1995 and 2015, believes that climate change is the single most important issue facing the world and that its evolution will determine their future.

Climate change has created uncertainty for this generation, specifically related to jobs, education, and the state of the environment, and they are demanding immediate action. Most of Gen-Z are school aged or recent graduates, an unexpected demographic to lead the charge. Seventeen-year old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, among many others, has stood out as a vocal leader of the current movement. During a TED talk she explains, “We've had 30 years of pep-talking and selling of positive ideas, and I am sorry, but it doesn't work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now. They haven't.” She continues to explain that while we need this kind of hope, “the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

Gen Z is advocating for immediate action to secure their future. However, limited by their age, Gen Z is looking to older generations to support them through social and legislative change and conscientious transformations – socially, educationally, and within the built-environment.

Show support for social change and legislative action

Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year for her climate activism. Young people from all over the world have joined Thunberg and the School Strike for Climate movement by skipping school on Fridays to participate. They are leveraging school, the most significant thing within their control, to gain support, and it is working. On March 15th, 2019, one rally garnered support from one million participants in 125 countries.

Greta Thunberg speaking at a climate change protest in Rome.

A commendable example of support for Gen Z’s effort occurred in New York City last September. New York City Public Schools announced that their 1.1 million students could skip school, without penalty, to participate in the Friday march. After the city’s announcement, other districts around the United States followed suit. This decision was a product of small actions that gained momentum and resulted in the largest climate strike in history.

There are other actions being taken that do not include strikes. For example, in March 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, School Strike for Climate suggested numerous acts that could be done, while respecting social distancing and quarantine rules. Some include emailing politicians, posting on social media, and working to plan and organize future activities. No action is too small. It is the coming together of many voices that leads to changes at the systemic level.

Education for a Sustainable Economy

The social and legislative change Gen Z is calling for, is linked to their financial future. The most recent Future of Jobs report lists, “the move toward a greener global economy through advances in new energy technologies” as a socio-economic trend driving business. Moreover, rapid advancement in technology means many jobs will require a greater understanding of robotics, software, coding, engineering, and the sciences. Implementing curriculum that provides students with these skills is critical to keep up with the evolution of the employment landscape.

Gen Z will be competing in a global market that is different than today; preparing them requires prior generations to act on their behalf by advocating for STEM education for all. Introduced a couple of decades ago, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum remains a choice rather than a mandate for many K-12 schools. Traditionally, science and math are part of the core curriculum, but technology and engineering are provided as electives, if at all. The four branches of STEM are intrinsically connected and are crucial to preparing students for new technologies and future jobs.

Education about Sustainability

In addition to emerging energy technologies, Gen Z is relying on their schools to help them make informed decisions about future education and jobs, as they continue to lead the movement on the global stage. Italy has responded by implementing sustainability and climate change into their educational curriculum for every grade. Italian students are learning about the cause and effects of sustainable behavior based on facts rather than through slanted political and social platforms.

In addition to policy driven curriculum shifts, simple additions of programs like recycling can have a large impact. Educational facilities are one of the top producers of waste. In the United States, 40% of educational waste is paper, and 15% is glass and plastic. All of this is 100% recyclable but is often thrown away in absence of recycling programs and recycling education. In 2017 America generated 267.8 million tons of waste. The U.S. is now producing more waste than can be handled by the countries to which we export. In contrast, Germany is the world leader for recycling, and they recycle 80% of their waste. Lifelong habits that are taught in schools can bring the U.S. in-line with the recycling rates of other developed countries.

Sustainably built schools

Recently, ‘future forward schools’ emerged as a trending concept in school design, and it often features maker spaces, flexible learning layouts and technology enabled infrastructure. Notably absent from this description are sustainable design elements, healthy building materials, and net-zero emissions. Advocates for climate action, including designers, believe these elements are intrinsic to what makes a school future forward. Although efforts are made to integrate them into designs, they are often the first items cut to meet a budget. Buildings generate nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainably built schools send a message that prioritizing the environment within the built form is essential for learning and conserving community resources. What better way to support Gen Z’s goal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, than by providing them with a school facility that is emission free and costs less to operate?

Sustainable design is perceived to be costly, but it is an advantageous investment. In addition to energy reducing design strategies, meeting net-zero emissions requires on-site energy-generating systems to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Reducing energy demand and limiting fossil fuel use, result in long term energy savings and a healthier environment. Simply stated, sustainable design pays for itself. The U.S. Department of Energy published a report on Discovery Elementary school in Arlington, VA, showing that $100,000 per year in utility costs is saved by building a net-zero facility.

So, what would a sustainably designed school look like? A few examples include:

It is time to follow the lead of Gen Z and students like Greta Thunberg. To effectively prepare American students for life beyond school, policy makers and institutions must model and teach sustainability and STEM as part of the K-12 experience and beyond. As schools are remodeled, and new ones built, a commitment must be made to develop a future forward curriculum in parallel with school building design, and to prioritize both in the budget process. The benefits of making this commitment are multifaceted, improving both the planet and the pocketbook in the long term. As Greta stated, “it is time for action!”