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Are Millennials Less Committed to the Environment Than Baby Boomers?

A new study says yes. But maybe it's just asking the wrong questions.

So, Millennials, are we green, or are we not?

We believe that climate change exists and that humans are causing it. We support alternative energy and stricter environmental regulations. We’ll pay more for environmentally friendly products.

But, according to a new study that surveyed high school seniors and college freshmen over multiple decades, we’re much less likely than our Baby Boomer parents or even apathetic Gen X'ers to take action to help the environment. We're three times more likely than our parents' generation to say we’ve made “no personal effort at all to help the environment." And while 15 percent of Boomers say they “make quite a bit of effort” to help the environment, only 9 percent of our generation does. Fewer of us cut down on electricity, turn down the thermostat during winter, or drive less in order to save energy.

The authors of the study wanted to test out competing theories about Millennials, defined in this case as anyone born after 1982. Are we “Generation Me”—self-centered, self-promoting narcissists—or are we “Generation We”—socially minded, community-focused do-gooders? The study supports the former theory on a range of issues, especially environmental ones, where “some of the largest declines” in social-mindedness were found.

I believe the researchers understated our commitment to the environment, but it’s difficult to dismiss their findings outright, in part because some of its other conclusions do line up with my own conception of Millennials. The study found that we care more about image and fame than previous generations, which rings true to me—although for Millennials, fame might mean “famous on the Internet” rather than world-renowned. We care more about what our colleagues think of us than previous generations did, and being a boss or a community leader is more important to us. We care less about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” which makes sense because that sounds lame—a problem Dustin Hoffman might have mulled in The Graduate while whiling his summer away in his parents’ backyard pool.

Still, I don’t believe Millennials feel as coolly towards the environment as the study indicates. For one thing, the surveys analyzed didn’t ask about the kinds of green solutions we’ve embraced. We love buying green products! We’re also more interested in an urban environmentalism, in living densely, sharing cars, riding bikes, and eating less meat. None of those actions alone will stop climate change, but they add up.

I’m most skeptical of the study’s conclusions, though, because it depends on surveys of 17- and 18-year-olds. If anything defines Millennials, it’s our tendency to delay adulthood compared to our parents' generation. We get married later; we rely on our helicopter parents; we’re so focused on getting to college or getting a decent job that as high school students and college freshmen we’re just beginning to think about our place in the world. This survey about green buying habits, for instance, shows a huge difference in opinion between Millennials younger than 18 and those older: The younger group doesn’t care about making green purchases, while the older one is fully committed.

We don’t want to get “involved in programs to clean up the environment,” because we spent all of elementary school involved in programs hoping to save the rainforest, only to find out the rainforest is worse off than ever. Instead, we want to support businesses we know don’t source their wood from Indonesian rainforests. We want to buy our electricity from solar and wind farms and work from home instead of driving to an office. These are ideas that barely existed a generation or two ago, so it’s hard to compare enthusiasm for them among Millennials, Gen X’ers and Boomers. But I don’t think we compare as unfavorably as this study indicates. At least, I hope we don’t.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user quinn.anya

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