They have a reputation for being environmentally minded do-gooders. But an academic analysis of surveys spanning more than 40 years has found that today’s young Americans are less interested in the environment and in conserving resources—and often less civic-minded overall—than their elders were when they were young.
The findings go against the widespread belief that environmental issues have hit home with today’s young adults, known as Millennials, who have grown up amid climate change discussion and the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The environment is often listed among top concerns of young voters.
“I was shocked,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who is one of the study’s authors. “We have the perception that we’re getting through to people. But at least compared to previous eras, we’re not.”
Twenge, author of the book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” has spent much of her career publishing work that challenges or attempts to explain commonly held beliefs about young people.
This study, published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at the life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation of three young generations—baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials.
Based on two longstanding national surveys of high school seniors and college freshmen, Twenge and her colleagues found a decline, over the last four decades, in young people’s trust in others, their interest in government, and the time they said they spent thinking about social problems.
Steepest of all was a steady decline in concern about the environment, and taking personal action to save it.
Researchers found that, when surveyed decades ago, about a third of young baby boomers said it was important to become personally involved in programs to clean up the environment. In comparison, only about a quarter of young Gen Xers—and 21 percent of Millennials—said the same.