The Millennial Environmental Voice: We Can’t Hear You Now

Posted on June 8, 2017 by Linda Benfield

The United States’ environmental agenda shifted abruptly with the election. Instead of implementing greenhouse gas initiatives, bolstering incentives for renewable energy projects, and fine-tuning various air, water and waste standards, we are suddenly discussing the future of the Endangered Species Act, debating withdrawal from the Paris Accord, filing away the Clean Power Plan, and considering the limits of science in regulatory decision-making.

Through all the discord, angst and celebration of the changed focus of environmental regulation, the Millennials have yet to assert their generational voice. Born between 1981 and 1996, these citizens are 21-36 years old. In 2015, they became the largest share of the American workforce at 33%, and there are estimates that Millennials will make up 50% of the American workforce by 2020. With those numbers, and their age, they have the potential to significantly impact elections for the next 35 years.

But who are they, and how will they impact the environmental agenda?  Only 50% of Millennials voted in the 2016 election – the worst turnout of any voting-age generation, and a decrease in their voting participation from the 2012 election. The tropes for this generation peg them as “socially conscious,” and willing to deeply engage in causes they believe in. However, empirical “time-lapse” research comparing responses from different generations at the same point in the responders’ lives, actually indicates that Millennials are no more altruistic than previous generations, and no more determined to seek meaning in their work and lives or do work that is worthwhile to society. This generation also faces different economic and social challenges than their parents did, and it is not clear how that perspective will translate to addressing environmental challenges.  

In the last 50 years, we have fundamentally changed the environmental “baseline.” Millennials never experienced burning rivers, and they didn’t grow up underneath the Denver “Brown Cloud.” The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and 40 C.F.R. are their baseline - and that is a different perspective than their Baby Boomer parents had when they were fighting against tangible environmental degradation. The Millennials can fundamentally impact our election results – if they vote. And until they vote, we won’t know what the environmental voice of this powerful generation sounds like.