Fast track to a circular economy through intergenerational exchange

Intergenerational exchange (image: pixabay)

Globally connected, locally rooted
It was my first Circular Economy mapping event [20/11/2019]. A breadth of industries and contexts were represented in the room, from farming to engineering, goods repair through to artisan glass manufacture, student, sole trader, SME and large corporation. All ready to access and share, ideas and opportunities on implementing the principles of the circular economy. Three hours later, layered on top of the energetic conversations and outputs of multi-disciplinary knowledge exchange, an almost tangible energy of inter-generational learning pulsated in the room.

Urgency for economic model shift

Frankly, unarguably, the shared position for us all, is a future compromised, no matter what the timescale you lean towards. Biodiversity loss, water, air, and soil pollution, resource depletion, and excessive land use being just a few of the issues jeopardising the earth’s life-support systems (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017). It’s not the current devices we connect to, but the economy and ingrained attitudes towards design, production, and consumption that now needs a serious reboot. A challenging problem for all nations, the transition from the dominant ‘take-make-dispose’, step-by-step, linear economic model to a more regenerative one which works to eliminate waste and continual use of finite resources.

Outline of a circular economy (Elin MacArthur Foundation)

Leading the way

For a while now I have been intrigued about the key change-makers who will drive the pack, from which points in the process will the sustainability champions dominate, from which disciplines the trail-blazers will lead. From the breadth of case studies and future projects across a multitude of industries in the room this day, I identified no dominant pattern. Instead, what was refreshingly blatant was the drive and application from a population drawn from an extreme breadth of age groups, perspectives, knowledge banks, and tenure of experience. The energy and vision of one participant, Valerie Wood-Gaiger, a near-octogenarian, contributed a particularly strong message. Founder of ‘Learn with Grandma’, Val seemed to epitomise the creative gain from a return to inter-generational working, something which has been much diluted in the fast-paced technologification and commercialism of the concept of life.

Teach your children the mysteries, your fathers taught to you. -Wood-Gaiger, 2019

Diversity and Commonality

For so long we have been encouraged to label the differences between people born into different decades, neatly compartmentalising them into distinct categories. In order to better understand drivers or target incentives and support to the breadth of ages in the workplace or education. Yet, classifications such as baby boomers, generation x and millenniums, focus on the differences rather than the amplification of what binds the human race together. In my own experience, damaging stereotypes which have facilitated misunderstanding; an oversimplification of both the diversity and commonality across and within all age-groups. To quote social psychologist Leah Georges, the lens of generational stereotypes has only held us back.

Two-way intergenerational learning

Intergenerational learning can be defined as “a process through which individuals of all ages acquire skills and knowledge, and also attitudes and values, from daily experience, from all available resources, including that from all influences in their own ‘life worlds’ (EAGLE, 2012). Intergenerational learning was initially conceptualised as an informal process taking place in families, tribes or other such groupings (Corrigan et al., 2013). Yet today, this is a key concept that may well seed the type and approach to thinking necessary to achieve the global society’s sustainable development goals. The intergenerational exchange that will channel significant learning opportunities, and further support a transformation in attitudes between generations.

Return to holistic values and wisdoms of frugality

Listening in on a number of the conversations and networking, something crucial, and tied into my own lifeworld became apparent. I sensed a nostalgic pull back to a time when ingenuity, resourcefulness, creativity and experience, driven by a shared goal, through lively interaction facilitated the development of solutions that could transcend. Despite a recent gain in importance on the agendas of policymakers the concept of the ‘Circular Economy’ is not entirely new (Brennan et al., 2015). Our own family histories will reveal resource appreciation and economisation. I lament once more on the loss of innovation, adaptability and natural appetite for the redeployment of expertise and wisdom of my own father and forefathers. Decades spent planting, tending, growing, mending, repairing; my Dad in my view, the original recycler, up-cycler. Stewardship of natural resources, highly offended or made cross by waste, a keen interest in the type of life or heritage passed on to future generations. My parents, both from a long Irish rural lineage, a resourceful people born into a time where people didn’t have very much, but what they did have, was carefully looked after, fixed when broken, be that clothing or equipment. At the same time, things that were procured were generally built to last.

Sustainable lifestyles

I do believe we are capable of being more resourceful, but this I fear is inversely related to our level of consumerism and materialism, which has to date also infected how families and friends spend time together, how we eat, even communicate. Growing up in the 80s, I was lucky enough to be protected from the extreme rush of consumerism that seemed to grow exponentially in the 90s. Something that seemed to be fueled by developments such as the rise of plastics, disposal home-ware, pre-prepared meals, fast food franchises, and the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, to name just a few.

Education a key player

I continually recognise the important role of education. Yes, universities are no stranger to later-in-life learners, but there needs to be a more ambitious integration of and access to the stock of experiences locked within their communities. Effectively positioned, grounded in their local community whilst still maintaining a global outlook, they have a huge role to play. Not only in ensuring sustainability thinking is embedded across their programmes, but also facilitating more hungrily the learning exchange across all ages. The Carmarthen Business School is a fantastic example of working in partnership with business, to open up wicked problem solving to the wider community. In this specific instance in a circular mapping context, businesses, community members and students all benefited in learning that engaged the next generation of graduate and the wider stakeholders in glocal problem-solving. Not only developing skills and talents to be unleashed in the future, but supporting the development of intergenerational resilience to face the challenges ahead.

I look forward to more activity where conjoined generations engage in problem-solving for intergenerational, next-generation and planetary benefit.

Thank you to Adrian Matthews, EFT Consulting working in partnership with the Circular Economy Club, Allison Pinney Collis, and Tara King (KingShipp Sustainable Solutions). Event hosted by UWTSD’s Carmarthen Business School. Students facilitators drawn from the BA Business and Management degree.

Note the views expressed in this blog are my own and not affiliated with any other company


Brennan, G., Tennant, M. and Blomsma, F. (2015) ‘Business and production solutions: Closing the Loop’ in Kopnina, H. and Shoreman-Ouimet, E. (Eds). Sustainability: Key Issues. EarthScan, Routledge pp. 219-239.

Corrigan, T., McNamara, G. & O’Hara, J. (2013) ‘Intergenerational learning: A valuable learning experience for higher education students’, Egitim Arastirmalari, Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 52, pp. 117-136.

EAGLE(European Approaches to Inter-Generational Lifelong Learning in Europe) (2012) ‘Intergenerational Learning in Europe Policies, Programmes & Practical Guidance’ [online]. Available: [Accessed 20th November 2019].

Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N. M.P, & Hultink, Erik. (2017) ‘The Circular Economy – a new sustainability paradigm?’ Journal of Cleaner Production (accepted version),

Georges, L. (2018) ‘How generational stereotypes hold us back at work’, Ted Talks, April 2018 . Available: [Accessed 22nd November 2019].

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