The idea that younger generations care the most about the climate while older people downplay the issue and refuse to take action are a widespread myth, according to new research.
To better understand differences between generations, including how they perceive one another and the biggest challenges of the day, my team at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and New Scientist commissioned a survey of more than 4000 people aged 18 and over in the US and UK. Responses were collected from 2 to 9 August.
Previous research has made clear that one of the most pervasive and destructive generational myths is that older cohorts don’t care about the environment or social purpose more generally. The new survey shows how dangerously caricatured this is.
In the UK, over three-quarters of baby boomers – who are defined as those currently aged 56-76 – agree that climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues are big enough problems that they justify significant changes to people’s lifestyles. This was as high as any other generation (see chart). Seven in 10 of this group say they are willing to make changes to their own lifestyle, completely in line with younger generations.
Older generations are also less fatalistic than the young: only one in five baby boomers say there is no point in changing their behaviour to tackle climate change because it won’t make any difference, compared with a third of Generation Z – those aged 18-25. This is an important driver of how we act: a sense that all is already lost leads to inertia.
But our study shows that people have a rather different impression of who thinks what: when we ask people which age group is most likely to say there is no point in changing their behaviour, the oldest group is the most likely to be picked out. We wrongly think they have given up. Social psychologists call this misconception “pluralistic ignorance”. It is an important effect, because it shapes our views of others.
Older people’s concern isn’t just expressed with words, but reflected in their actions. We know from other studies that it is actually baby boomers and Generation X who are the most likely to have boycotted products. But our new study shows that also isn’t the perception. The majority of the public wrongly think it is Generation Z or millennials who are most likely to boycott products, and only 8 per cent pick out baby boomers and just 9 per cent choose Gen X.
It is no surprise that the public have the wrong impression. Endless articles and analyses paint the picture of a clean generational break in environmental concern and action, with a new cohort of young people coming through who will drive change, if only older people would stop blocking them. Time magazine, for example, called Greta Thunberg “an avatar in a generational battle” when it made her its Person of the Year in 2019.
This isn’t just wrong, but dangerous, as it dismisses the real concern among large proportions of our economically powerful and growing older population.
The aftermath of the pandemic means it is set to become harder, not easier, to think about the long term, as short-term needs become more pressing: we will need all the support we can get, and creating or exaggerating generational division won’t help.
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