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We Care Less About The Environment As We Reach Old Age

Why do Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg take such different stances on protecting the environment? Research suggests age to be a key factor.
Why do Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg take such different stances on protecting the environment? Research suggests age to be a key factor.
  • We increasingly care about the environment up until our 40s
  • As we age beyond this, we then care less and less
  • This makes future policies less environmentally-friendly, rather than more

In 2019, a teenage girl from Sweden gave an impassioned speech to the United Nations expressing her concerns about our dying planet. A politically powerful, high-profile man in his seventies then ridiculed and belittled her on Twitter.

The girl in this story is Greta Thunberg, the then-16-year-old girl who called for world leaders to take real action to protect our environment against climate change. The man in question was current (now former) US President, Donald Trump, who tweeted in response to Greta’s speech, “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”

Since the age of 15, Greta Thunberg has loudly and proudly campaigned for world leaders to do more when it comes to climate change, her name now synonymous with climate activism.

Trump on the other hand is a symbol of world leaders ignoring climate change: he withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, slashed the budget for renewable energy research, and reversed policies directed at combatting climate change enacted by the Obama administration.

What is it that makes these two people take such starkly different stances on environmentalism? Research from BI Norwegian Business School suggests it could be their age.

Professors Benny Geys and Rune Jørgen Sørensen, and Associate Professor Tom-Reiel Heggedal, analysed data from a survey administered between 1989 and 2013 to record political attitudes and preferences, including preferences for protecting the environment.

Their results showed that environmental concern increased from the age of 18 before peaking around the age of 43. However, growing older then made people less likely to place emphasis on protecting the environment and care less about being environmentally-friendly. This could impact future environmental policies, especially in Western societies, as individuals are living longer and older people are more eager voters.

This decline can also be seen in veganism, often adopted due to the negative impact of animal farming on the environment. According market and consumer database Statista, in 2018, around 3% of 18–29-year-olds and 4% of 30-49-years-olds were vegan, with most vegans being under-50. If veganism is used as an indicator of environmental care, then this reflects the study’s findings that care for the environment increases from aged 18 until our forties, before declining.

Prof. Geys says, “Investments in environmental protection are expensive for current living generations and the benefits will not be seen for many years. The elderly, due to their shorter remaining lifespans, profit less from these future benefits. Also, the young, due to their lack of descendants and deficient knowledge of environmental risks, may not give consideration to these future benefits. This suggests a life-cycle effect with individuals placing different levels of emphasis on protecting the environment depending on their age at the time.”

The researchers say these findings are important as the difference between the young and old in their concerns for the environment is often assumed to be a generational phenomenon. If this were correct, pro-environmental attitudes would become increasingly prevalent when the current elderly pass away. However, these findings suggest that individual support for saving the environment declines over a person’s lifetime. This makes future policies less rather than more environmentally friendly.

This may be especially impactful in businesses and their motivation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN. According to HSBC’s 2019 Made for the Future report, only 57% of UK businesses planned to increase expenditure on sustainability while 24% said sustainability is crucial for recruitment and retention. But, when it comes to recruitment, they may be wrong.

A survey by Yale University of students from top business schools found that they sorted companies into top and bottom environmental performers. In fact, 78% of students were more inclined to apply for a job with a company with excellent environmental performance and 44% would accept a lower salary to work for a company with a large focus on sustainability.

There appears to be a disconnect between those already working in the companies and the young people looking to work for them today. The researchers’ findings indicate this could be due to the age of business school students compared to that of C-suite employees: the average age of students in top business schools is around the late-twenties, whereas CEOs of companies are often in their mid-to-late-fifties.

If we want businesses to take environmental impact seriously, perhaps slightly younger individuals should be more involved in decision-making in regards to sustainable policies; more individuals in their 30s and 40s rather than sole decision-making by those in their 50s or 60s and over.

And if we want world leaders to put more policies in action to combat climate change, perhaps younger people need to be voted into power. The average age of US Presidents so far when taking office is 55, and UK Prime Ministers of the past 30 years have been no younger than 43 at election: the age this research claims interest in the environment peaks before declining.

Thunberg for President anyone?

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