Will Millennials and Boomers Fight or Unite Over Sustainability?

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The rise of millennials and the aging of the boomer generation is reshaping America. In 2017, 50 percent of the U.S. population will be 50 years old or older. That same year, the millennial generation will become both America’s most employed demographic group and the demographic group with the largest buying power. The best way to visualize these demographic mega-trends is to envision two tectonic plates moving past each other.

Two generations moving too often in opposite directions

Much of the boomer generation’s economic history is defined by its consumption. It is the first generation to be born into mass-marketing that touted “having it your way.” No other generation has experienced, or will ever experience, the same high volume of TV and radio advertising.

The boomer generation’s consumption drove three mega-trends. The first was the rapid growth in fossil fuel consumption used to run their cars, homes and businesses. The second was their purchases of personal computers and programs that has resulted in today’s Information Age. The third was the adoption of a mass-produced food supply artificially infused with sugar, salt, fat and chemicals.

The millennial generation is just now putting their stamp on our economy and environment. Most obviously this is a generation defined by their smart phones and reliance on sites like Google, Facebook and YouTube for real-time learning, entertainment, purchases and awareness. Less obvious to other generations, but not to millennials, they are the most diverse generation in history.

From food to fun, they try new things, test new ideas and socially engage. Their relative fiscal conservativeness is driven from coming of age during a Great Recession created by the financial risks taken by Wall Street boomers. The urban members of the millennial generation are redeveloping the downtowns abandoned by the boomer generation. They are inventing best practices in small (or smaller) living and a shared economy enabled though smartphone apps. Millennials are the empowering force behind the success of companies like Uber and Amazon.

Boomer generation is hitting a sustainability wall

For all of the boomer generation’s accomplishments and examples of service, this generation may be remembered by history as the generation that borrowed so much money that it threatened America’s financial integrity. History will definitely remember this generation for consuming so much fossil fuels that it created climate change. It is also the fattest generation, with over 70 percent of boomers being overweight or obese. This is a generation where the majority of its members cannot afford their future health costs or retirement. The boomer generation is hitting a sustainability wall.

Millennial generation seeking sustainable solutions

The millennial generation is seeking sustainable solutions to the mistakes they think their boomer generation parents or grandparents have made. For example, they are the driving force behind a growing national shift away from mass-produced foods that are not sustainably sourced. Their buying power, along with concerned parents, are driving the sales of healthier foods to double-digit annual growth rates.

The millennial generation believes climate change is real, manmade and is damaging to human health. They are aligning with businesses that are taking actions to reduce climate changing emissions.

Will they unite or fight over sustainability?

The boomer generation shaped the 20th century. The millennial generation will shape the 21st century. At this transitional point in time, the question is whether these two generations can come together over sustainability.

Pain is what will eventually drive the boomer generation toward sustainability. At some point in their near future, the boomer generation will suffer the fullest ramifications of their unsustainable diet. This will push their focus from plus-size clothing to survival and the cost of survival. For many boomers, this realization will be too late. For many more, they will realize their worst fears and become dependent on government funding of pills and care. The optimistic vision is that the boomer generation will figure this out before this happens by following the millennial generation in buying healthy and sustainably-sourced food.

A related question is whether the boomer generation will shift from their climate-changing consumption of fossil fuels. Again, pain could be a motivator. How much longer can this generation afford the homes they raised their children in? My experience is that it is the boomer generation homeowners who are the leading purchasers of rooftop solar because it lowers their electricity bills. Many of these boomers are then really getting “weird” by using their energy savings to lease electric cars they fuel for free through their home’s solar system. In addition, a growing number of boomers are beginning the process of downsizing that has the potential of reducing their emissions.

Finally, another pain-point for both the boomer and millennial generation is the lack of income growth for the middle class over the last 15 years. Both generations have been harmed by this. Can these generations come together over this common economic challenge by adopting sustainable consumption?

Those will be the type of generational questions that will determine the future of boomers, millennials, our economy and the environment.

Image credit: Flickr/James Lumb

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Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton has been the editor in chief of TriplePundit, for 8 years! With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and a degree in Sociology from Pitzer College. She spent a few years in the non-profit policy sector as well, but we won't talk about that. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with her toddler overload and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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