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Millennials Don't Care About the Environment or Even Other People

Millennials apparently don't care about the environment. At least that's the latest result from a survey of different generations and their attitudes toward the environment. 

The reported study looked at over 40 years of data segmented into three generational groups: Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials and showed that Millennials were much less civically engaged and much less likely to be interested in a range of social problems. Most dramatically, high schoolers that were surveyed showed the least concern of any previous generation when it came to taking personal action to protect the environment. 

This is a shocking finding because of the specificity of the question. Anyone who is between the ages of 18-30 today knows that their peers are pretty down on government; that's why Obama was so inspiring (for a little while at least). But I think most people would have guessed that young people today cared more, on a personal level, than ever before.  

But forget anecdotes. Social science research backs up the precipitous drop in interest among young people for traditional avenues of social change. For instance, Millennials seem to have no use for labor unions, political parties (see this piece for more evidence), and other institutional levers of change. They favor protest, informal organizations, and cause based campaigns. Kony 2012 is the obvious example here. Whatever you think of the movement at large, it's specificity should be striking. It's not about Africa or even about Uganda, it's about one man. In addition to all of this, Millennials also probably prefer online organizations, Change.org being the biggest example. I'm not bashing this trend; it's good. When one set of institutions becomes so bloated and corrupt, we should find other ways of helping. 

The deeper causes of these results are more worrisome to me though. I've listed similar studies many times on this site, but I'll just reiterate that the pattern of activism is consistent with one of increased narcissism: young people focus on ourselves more than ever. Song lyrics have included steadily more "I" and "me" than "you" and "we" since the 1980s and this comprehensive study over thirty odd years shows that self-centeredness is on the rise. We care about our own activism and how it can glamorize us and about the personalities who oppose the change we want and how they act (Gaddafi, again Kony, and other villains of all types). But the environment does not inherently glamorize. Birds can't thank us when we protect their habitat and plankton can't sign our praises when we clean up oil spills. Thus, I fear environmental causes are neglected. 

The origin of all this, I believe, is a complex of beliefs and attitudes that took root a few decades ago at the beginning of a new age of prosperity along with teaching and learning theory that essentially praised self-esteem above all else. Our generation was raised so that we would, above all, feel good about ourselves -- thus we try to satisfy our desires, when in many cases, the ethical and effective thing to do is to abandon or resist our desires. And to bring this back to environmentalism, notice the willpower that being environmentally conscious requires. One must, in most cases, simply abandon what one wants right now, whether it be meat, a car, fashionable shoes, or less time spent walking to the recyling bin, and just do with less. 

This is hard. It's difficult to put aside one's immediate wants for what one believes is right, especially when what is right is something as abstract as an ecosystem, or lower deficits forty-years from now. The lesson is general though. To have a moral society, one needs more than moral institutions, one needs moral people, and if skepticism towards one's desires is evaporating on a societal scale, then we may be unable to sustain fairness, much less our natural environment. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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