The Age Gap In Attitudes Towards Sustainability: Are younger generations more environmentally conscious?



The Sustainability Meter test (© ARCedtech) has revealed interesting
age-wise behaviour patterns towards sustainability. In this article, Navya Malhotra (student of psychology at Ashoka University) analyses the data collected and presents a report on the findings of people’s attitudes towards sustainability.

In today’s day and age, the incorporation of sustainable behaviours and practices in our daily lives has become essential. Climate change, global-warming, ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion are just a few of the many environmental issues that the world is trying to combat. Therefore, sustainability is the need of the hour and studying people’s attitudes towards it is vital.

“Young people are key actors in raising awareness, running educational programmes, promoting sustainable lifestyles,  conserving nature, supporting renewable energy, adopting environmentally-friendly practices and implementing adaptation and mitigation projects” (UNFCCC, 2013). Other than cognitive functions like memory or physical abilities like stamina, many aspects of human behaviour change with age. People of different ages may view sustainability differently. Therefore, age-related differences are important to study while looking at attitudes towards sustainability. It is of popular opinion that younger generations care more about environmental issues, and are therefore more passionate about sustainability than older people. This aligns with the ‘age hypothesis’, according to which younger people are more concerned than older people about environmental deterioration (Fransson & Gaerling, 1999). A 2018 Gallup analysis found a “global warming age gap” in some beliefs, attitudes, and risk perceptions. One of the examples depicting the same was that 70% of adults aged 18 to 34 said that they worry about global warming compared to 56% of those aged 55 or older. This age-gap in pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours could be an outcome of several reasons.

One factor contributing to this age gap could be people’s goals and their perception of life itself. The socioemotional selectivity theory suggests that the differences in people’s perceptions of the time remaining in their lives influences the kind of information they perceive as well as the social goals they pursue (Carstensen et al., 1999). Younger people may be more likely to perceive their remaining time as long and would be more passionate about their future goals, and new information which might help fulfil them. Thus, they are considered to be more aware and knowledgeable of the world around them (Stephan et al., 2013). In addition to that, the detrimental effects of unsustainable economic activities might hamper their goals or future plans, thereby directing their attention towards such environmental issues. They are more likely to suffer from the negative consequences of environmental issues in their near future as compared to older people. Therefore, their motivation and passion for the environment might stem from such personal reasons and the need to have a more secure future ahead of them. On the other hand, older people would perceive their remaining time as much shorter and accordingly have goals that cater to emotional satisfaction and avoid  emotional discomfort in the present. Thus, it could be inferred that they might be more comfortable in exploiting the environment in pursuit of their comfort and emotional satisfaction. More specifically, they may cause more environmental harm, conserve less and make fewer environmentally conscious choices. 

It would also be important to consider individual differences while assessing people’s changing attitudes with age as they significantly influence one’s thought patterns and decision-making process. There are a few personality traits that evolve as an individual matures and grows older (Stephan et al., 2013). Openness to experience is one such trait as many sustainability efforts require an openness to change and willingness to consider new ideas which might be more beneficial to the environment, while being slightly less convenient for the individual. The results of a study by the European Commission in 2017 revealed that people who are in the age bracket of 15-24 cared more about environmental issues like climate change than people who were 55 years or older. This study highlighted that the main cause for this generational gap was the lack of awareness and stubbornness in adapting to new changes in lifestyle. It could therefore be inferred that older people find it difficult to let go of old habits that they have been following for years and might not realise the importance of introducing changes to their existing lifestyles. Younger people are more open to experience change and inculcate different habits in their lifestyles at the cost of their comfort. On the other hand, older people might be more resistant to new ideas and would not be open to protecting the environment at the cost of their comfort.

We decided to explore whether such an age gap truly exists. We came out with a ‘Sustainability Meter’, which tested people’s sustainability quotient, specifically their attitudes towards sustainable habits and sustainable development goals. We asked an equal amount of younger and older people to take the sustainability meter test. Analysis of the responses received for the ‘Sustainability Meter’ revealed that people falling in the age group of 18-30 had a significantly higher sustainability quotient as compared to those who were 55 years or older. A few specific examples were of questions such as, “I read the information on products that I buy”. 75% of people aged 18-30 answered “Usually” for this question, while only 30% of people aged 55 or older answered “Sometimes” for this option. The remaining percentage of older people responded with “Never” or “Have never thought about it” options. Another example was the following question, “I think climate change is real and needs immediate action.” 45% of older people responded to this question with “I don’t know what that is.” That is nearly half of older respondents who were unaware of climate change. For the question, “I ask around for something second hand instead of buying something new”, 30% of older people responded with “Sometimes”, while 74% of younger people responded with “Usually”. These examples depict the existing age-gap in attitudes towards sustainability and pro-environmental behaviours. However, one of the questions in our sustainability meter asked people if they would be willing to incorporate sustainable habits in their lifestyles and become more environmentally aware. Majority of the older people responded with a “Yes” to this question. This goes on to show that while the older generations might be unaware and not as environmentally conscious, they are still willing to change and increase their awareness. 

It is important to continue spreading awareness about environmental issues and attempting to make environmentally responsible choices. If such an age gap does exist, we can aim to bridge this gap by educating our elders and informing them about environmentally conscious habits. We decided to make this thought actionable by introducing a digital course to educate people about the Sustainable Development Goals. This course will be launched soon on the website. The attitudes towards sustainability might be divided between older and younger people, however extreme weather conditions, toxins in your water, flood, fire and harmful particles in the air are all objective realities that every person will have to live with forever, if we don’t implement changes now.

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