Do Young People Still Care About the Environment?

With all of the green euphoria back in 2006 and 2007 it was easy to think that the Millennials – today’s teenagers and twenty somethings – would be the most eco-minded generation yet. Unfortunately, that may not be the case, at least by traditional measures. I think the catch is that this generation has gone through a lot. Their world view has surely been influenced by the financial crisis. It has also taken a steady beating from Republicans who diminish the potential for government to have a positive role in social and political affairs. Reagan liked to joke that one of the scariest things he had ever heard was , “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” When the same joke gets repeated again and again by Republican party members over the years, it will have an effect. Have a listen to the Gipper himself here.

The importance people place on environmental protection has fluctuated ever since  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring started to open people’s eyes back in 1962. For instance, economic troubles always trump environmental issues. The same goes for terrorism and other salient issues. The environment only hits the top of the list when times are good and people are feeling comfortable.

Now we have a new report from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which compares today’s Millennials with other generations (such as Generation X and the Baby Boomers) when they were of similar age. The article looked at two longstanding studies of high school seniors and college freshman. The researchers found

 a decline, over the last four decades, in young people’s trust in others, their interest in government and the time they said they spent thinking about social problems. Steepest of all was a steady decline in concern about the environment, and taking personal action to save it. Researchers found that, when surveyed decades ago, about a third of young baby boomers said it was important to become personally involved in programs to clean up the environment. In comparison, only about a quarter of young Gen Xers — and 21 percent of Millennials — said the same. Meanwhile, 15 percent of Millennials said they had made no effort to help the environment, compared with 8 percent of young Gen Xers and 5 percent of young baby boomers.

The authors point out that the research on the Millennials was carried out before the recession hit. So what is the explanation? When Silent Sprint first entered public consciousness, environmental issues were very much about removing toxins from your environment – sort of cleaning up your own back yard. Do today’s issues built around problems associated with climate change seem too intractable to inspire people to want to make a difference?

I thought a lot of the beauty of the green renaissance of the last few years was that it was built around the idea of individual consumer action and not so much dependent on initiatives by Congress or state legislators. So when the survey asked about getting “personally involved in programs to clean up the environment” it was really asking a dated question.

Clearly young people are not lining up to work at PIRGs on bottle laws anymore. Today environmentally concerned young people can get a job as chief sustainability officer at a Fortune 500 company or maybe they can find a position making really cool stuff at Patagonia. The world of green has changed rather radically. I’m not sure that the report is accurately capturing how kids today envision making a difference.

Maybe Reagan doesn’t have to worry after all – the private sector is here to help us. Or so the thinking goes.


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