The dangerous myth that only young people care about climate change

Unthinking ageism in climate concern must end. The planet depends on it

September 10, 2021
 Extinction Rebellion activists occupying Waterloo Bridge in April 2019.  mark phillips / Alamy Stock Photo
Extinction Rebellion activists occupying Waterloo Bridge in April 2019. mark phillips / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many myths about the differences between generations—but none are more dangerous and destructive than the claim that it’s only the young that care about climate change.

It has crept into so many discussions about climate concern that it’s become an accepted truth that the young are at war with older generations who are not only utterly unfussed about the future of the planet, but are culpable for the current crisis.

For example, when Time magazine named Greta Thunberg their person of the year in 2019, they called her a “standard bearer in a generational battle.” The US singer Billie Eilish was more direct: “Hopefully the adults and the old people start listening to us [about climate change]. Old people are gonna die and don’t really care if we die, but we don’t wanna die yet.”

But, as I examine in my new book, Generations, these stereotypes collapse when we look at the evidence, for example, a major Europe-wide survey has shown that there is no real age divide in recognition that the planet is heating up. Around half of the pre-war generation think the world’s climate is definitely changing and that figure rises to around six in ten among Gen X (now in their 40s and 50s). This oft-forgotten generation is actually the most likely to hold this view, with their younger counterparts slightly less likely to be certain.

It’s true that the young are more likely to ascribe this change to human activity than the old, but the differences, while marked, are not huge: half of the youngest generation, Gen Z, think climate change is down to us, compared with a third for Baby Boomers, who’re in their sixties and seventies. While the latter figure may seem alarmingly low, the gap in attitudes between the youngest and oldest generations is less stark than many would assume.

Concern also seems to be shifting up the age range over time. For the past few years, it’s tended to be Gen Z and Millennials who’ve picked climate change out as one of the most important issues facing Britain in Ipsos MORI’s Issue Index. But in the latest study, Baby Boomers are almost twice as likely to pick out climate than Gen Z.

And the cliches are just as far from the truth when we look at how the different generations act. Claims abound that Millennials and Gen Z are “purpose-driven” consumers, only supporting sustainable or socially responsible brands. But it’s actually Baby Boomers who are most likely to have boycotted a company in the last 12 months in the UK, with Gen Z about half as likely. On this measure at least, “cancel culture” is more of a middle-age thing.

But these myths have clearly stuck with the public. In new research conducted in partnership between the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the New Scientist to be released later this month, the public are much more likely to think it’s old people who believe it’s too late to avert climate disaster—when it’s actually young people who are the most pessimistic about our ability to change path. Similarly, people think it’s the young who are boycotting products, with hardly any (correctly) picking out older generations as the most active.

This is important, as we know that our perceptions of the norm affect our own behaviour—and older people are getting the message that their generations don’t care, which risks becoming self-fulfilling. The unthinking ageism that has crept into much of the discussion about climate change is therefore, a serious problem. It completely misreads the strength of connection up and down generations, where 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.

It also kicks the can down the road, placing massive expectations on coming generations of young people to deliver a break from the past—when there is nothing in the evidence to suggest they are markedly different.

And most importantly, it ignores the growing demographic weight and financial power of the older population. Our societies are ageing, and older people are getting richer: in the UK, over-fifties account for around one-third of the population but 47 per cent of consumer spending, which has increased by eight percentage points since 2003. Greater action by governments and businesses is vital, but so too is changing our individual behaviour, in what we buy and use–and we’re excluding half of all expenditure if we don’t engage older groups.

Creating or exaggerating differences between generations on climate is, then, a particularly self-defeating approach to a potentially existential challenge. If we want a greener future, we need to act together, uniting the generations, rather than trying to divide them.