Generational gaps: Young people more worried about climate change than their parents

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Recent polls find that younger people are more likely to be concerned about climate change and participate in environmental activism than older generations. Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

By Domenic Purdy

Younger generations are more engaged in climate activism and more worried about global warming than their parents.

A Pew Research poll from May found that 67% of Generation Z and 71% of millennials agree that tackling climate change should be a top priority of government, businesses and individuals. This is compared to 63% of Generation X and 57% of Baby Boomers.

“A consistent finding is that young people have been more concerned than older people about taking care of the environment,” former Syracuse University sociology professor Richard Braungart said.

Taking personal action against climate change is more common within younger generations—perhaps because young adults are more concerned about the future.

“Compared to older generations, younger generations in the U.S. express a much greater interest in addressing climate change, favor proposals shifting energy reliance away from or eliminating fossil fuels and are more likely to say they would take personal action to bring about needed environmental changes,” Braungart said.

A 2019 Gallup poll reported that the “biggest generational gap is visible in the belief that global warming will pose a serious threat in one’s own lifetime.”

While 67% of Gen Zers are worried about the impact of climate change on their mental health, only 42% of Baby Boomers are somewhat or very concerned, according to a 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll.  

Trouble at Home

Braungart said that beliefs on issues like climate change are formed and become concrete during early adulthood. He said that children’s views are often reflective of their parents’ beliefs before they understand the nuances of society.  

The issue of climate change in particular has seen children diverge from their parents’ attitudes toward the issue.

“[My parents] believe it at least, they just don’t believe it’s a problem, or at least not one that concerns them,” Louisiana State University kinesiology student Emily Passman, 21, said. “I feel [their] generation has notoriously pushed a lot of issues onto the younger generations to deal with because it’s not their problem. And climate change doesn’t seem to be any different.”

Passman disagrees with her parents’ belief that climate change is a far-off issue that should be pushed back. “It’s our obligation to concern ourselves with those things and not leave them to other generations as they have done,” she said.

Some Gen Zers see their parents’ perception of climate change as one born of selfishness.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette music business student Nicholas Couture, 20, said his parents, both 65, are optimistic that things will get better: scientists will figure it out or the impacts will be minimal, an attitude he said many older adults share.

He said his own generation is quite the opposite.

“[Our parents] didn’t think about the future like we do,” Couture said. “They thought about a prosperous, hopeful future. We think about how high water levels are going to get, how high temperatures are going to rise, what animals are going extinct. We don’t have that luxury of time anymore. That’s the scary thing.”

The Power of Youth

Braungart and his wife, both retired, have studied generational politics, specifically youth movements, for over 30 years. The couple said that many youth movements dating back to the 19th century are built around environmentalism and, most recently, climate change activism.

The 1982 Euro-Barometer 10-Nation Survey of European Youth reported that young people expressed a strong interest in environmental issues. Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of youth surveyed said that they approve of nature protection groups and 76-96% of youth said they approve of the environmentalist movements.

Activists like Greta Thunberg have engaged younger generations in climate change and environmental activism.

Vox reported that the movement Thunberg started when she conducted sit-ins on Swedish parliament in 2018 grew to encompass over 2,500 events across 163 countries on all seven continents. Nearly 7.6 million people took part in the movement, the “largest youth movement in history,” Braungart noted.

“It was organized at a global level thanks to the pervasiveness of digital technology that could connect young people throughout the world. And lots of young people know more about using digital technology than many in the adult generation,” Braungart said. “Teenagers and young children enthusiastically participated in Greta’s movement, and some adolescents started their own climate change movements in their countries. The internet and digital technology continue to be the ongoing sources for youthful political activism, including climate change.”

Couture said young people need to find the right balance between optimism and realism about the future.

“I hope we have a better chance at tomorrow, but we have to work and try to aim for it. But the false optimism is not healthy,” Couture said. “We need to find a good medium and be realistic. We have to be realistic about the situation but not give into the pessimism of it all, or the false optimism of it all.”

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