Conservationist. Environmentalist. Eco-friendly. Green. What we call someone who cares about environmental issues has changed over the past few decades, and so have our generational attitudes toward these issues—just not necessarily for the better. Though we ‘Millennials’ may have grown up in the era of recycling and global warming, a recent study found members of Gen Y to be less interested in the environment and less civic-minded overall than members of Gen X or baby boomers were at the same age.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was led by Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor who has written several books about Gen Y. Twenge’s team analyzed two national surveys of high school seniors and college freshman, spanning more than 40 years. They found that over the past four decades, young people’s trust in others, interest in government and time spent thinking about social problems all declined. But the steepest and steadiest drop of all was in concern with environmental issues.
Here’s how the generations responded:
• One third of boomers, 25% of Gen Xers and 21 percent of Millennials said it’s important to become ‘personally’ involved in programs to clean up the environment.
• Five percent of boomers, 8% of Gen X and 15% of Gen Y said they had made no effort to help the environment.
• More than three-quarters of boomers and 71% of Gen X said the had made an effort to conserve heating fuel in their homes, compared with 56% of Gen Y.
The AP article quotes several young women unsurprised by the results, hurling the typical tropes against Gen Y: Lazy, narcissistic, spoiled. But I’m more inclined to agree with DePaul environmental science professor Mark Potosnak:
“It’s not so much that they don’t think it’s important. They’re just worn out,” Potosnak said. “It’s like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.”
During the first big environmentalism (conservationist?) push in the 1960s and 70s, there was much more optimism that these were issues on which everybody, even individuals, could have a positive effect. Members of Gen Y and to a certain extent Gen X have grown up being told that global warming was an imminent and dire threat, then nothing to worry about, then maybe something in between (incidentally, it’s an 80-degree March day in central Indiana today). We know there are potentially toxic chemicals in our lipstick and soup cans and supermarket receipts and shampoo and mattresses and shower curtains and cleaning supplies and lettuce and carpet and air. We live in an intensely fast media climate where every environmental scare is reported breathlessly and then forgotten.
There’s an excellent article in the New York Times today about “going to extreme lengths to purge household toxins.” The article focuses on mothers trying to create toxin-free environments for babies and children, but it could apply to anyone whose concerned about issues like these. Tens of thousands of untested chemicals are in products today, and no one’s what exactly is dangerous and at what levels. Maybe we’re just overwhelmed.
Besides, trust in government and elected officials has steadily declined with each post-WWII generation. It must have been nice, to grow up thinking that if you picked up litter and did your part, the government would be able to do anything close to keeping our air and water plentiful and safe, to protecting us from all the dangerous chemicals lurking. But nobody writes letters to their Congressmen anymore. And nobody thinks that the FDA can protect us from poisoned food and products. Maybe Gen Y’s not less green but just more skeptical?
[Hanna points out that maybe we've just bought too much into the idea that coordinating lipstick days celebrates women and changing your Twitter avatar counts as activism. "Instead of actually going out and, say, doing stuff, this generation ... shares links. And blogs," she said. Touche.]