Generational divide over climate action a myth

Older people are just as likely as younger people to recognise the need for action on climate change and to say they’re willing to make big sacrifices to protect the environment.

A new UK study shows that despite media and celebrities attempting to create a generational divide, across the age spectrum there is similar concern. The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and New Scientist magazine, finds that around seven in 10 people from all generations surveyed say climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues are big enough problems that they justify significant changes to people’s lifestyles, with no real difference in agreement between Baby Boomers (74 per cent) – the oldest generation polled – and Gen Z (71 per cent), the youngest.

Similarly, there are almost identical levels of agreement to make changes to their own lifestyle to reduce the impact of climate change.

Where there is some generational difference in views is on whether environmental concerns should take precedence over economic growth: 66 per cent of Gen Z and 57 per cent of Millennials agree environmental concerns should take priority over the economy, compared with 44 per cent of Baby Boomers and 45 per cent of Gen X.

One surprise it that despite younger people being identified as most active on climate issues, they are actually more likely than older generations to say there’s no point in changing their behaviour to tackle climate change because it won't make any difference anyway: 33 per cent of Gen Z and 32 per cent of Millennials feel this way, compared with 22 per cent of Gen X and 19 per cent of Baby Boomers.

The public also think that younger generations are most likely to have boycotted certain products for socially conscious reasons in the last year, with 27 per cent guessing that Gen Z have done so and 23 per cent saying the same about Millennials ­– much higher than the proportions who guess that Gen X (9 per cent) and Baby Boomers (8 per cent) have done so. But according to previous research conducted as part of the European Social Survey, it is actually older generations who are most likely to have carried out such boycotts: for example, in 2018, 31 per cent of UK Baby Boomers said they had boycotted a product as a way to improve things or prevent things going wrong – more than double the 12 per cent of Gen Z who reported doing so.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said: “There are many myths about the differences between generations – but none are more destructive than the claim that it’s only the young who care about climate change. When Time magazine named Greta Thunberg their person of the year in 2019, they called her a ‘standard bearer in generational battle’, which is reflective of the unthinking ageism that has crept into some portrayals of the environmental movement. But, as I examine in my new book, Generations, these stereotypes collapse when we look at the evidence.”

“There is virtually no difference in views between generations on the importance of climate action, and all say they are willing to make big sacrifices to achieve this. What’s more, older people are actually less likely than the young to feel that it’s pointless to act in environmentally conscious ways because it won’t make a difference. Parents and grandparents care deeply about the legacy they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren – not just their house or jewellery, but the state of the planet. If we want a greener future, we need to act together, uniting the generations, rather than trying to drive an imagined wedge between them.”

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