• Stevie Hanna

Your Starting Point Matters – Generational Differences on the Journey to Wellness and Sustainability

When discussing journeys, literal or metaphoric, it’s important not to overlook the significance of the starting point. Our point of departure often influences our journey as much as any barriers or twists and turns along the way. As the Great Lakes GrowthWorks team has explored the various paths to health and sustainability consciousness, the stories we shared drew out one crucially influential factor: age or more specifically, timing.

I hate to reduce things to Millennials’ upbringing, but there’s no avoiding the fact that after 1980 children were born into a world with starkly different messages about health and the environment. Dangers to health or the environment may have been known, but not as extensively reported and pursued. In the 1970s there was virtually no recycling. Health and safety-focused school programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and S.A.D.D. (Students Against Destructive Decisions) blossomed in the early 1980s. The first report on “Smoking and Health” by the U.S. Surgeon General may have been published in 1964, but the movement toward public smoking bans remained very limited until the 2000s. In the 1960s roughly 42% of Americans smoked, but that number has been dropping steeply and now hovers around 15% thanks largely in part to anti-smoking media campaigns. Media coverage of global warming only dates back to the late 1980s! Whatever an individual’s personal beliefs or actions, those born after 1980 have had an awareness of these issues and broader access to information from a young age.

The prominence of these issues not only led to more widespread acceptance of their reality and importance, but also meant that more resources were in place to incorporate them into daily life practices. I am not a more fervent believer in recycling than my mother, but only recently is it possible to regularly and conveniently recycle in our small Michigan town. Convenient access plays a huge role in developing habits and perceptions, particularly in making those habits seem natural or obvious from a young age. Most recently, the internet and social media have encouraged corporate transparency and provided the tools for both producers and consumers to better track their environmental impact. As consumers increasingly value and prioritize health and sustainability (both social and environmental), corporations will continue to respond and make it easier to act on those interests and preferences. So on the whole, there is encouraging evidence that we are making some progress and already feeling its benefits. The question is, how do generational differences impact the priorities and methods of people pursuing health, environment, and sustainability conscious lifestyles?

As usual, comparisons between generations are often conflicted. There is a host of articles analyzing the beliefs and practices of Millennials but little reliable consensus. It is generally agreed that Millennials are more likely to believe in climate change, that human actions are responsible for that change, and to favor developing alternative energy sources. Many sources have also reported a stronger health-consciousness. But does this mean that they are recycling more or have lower rates of obesity? It seems that the problem lies at least in part with the measurements employed. Are Millennials saying one thing but doing another? Or is it that Millennials and Boomers can’t always be measured by the same yardstick?

The first thing we should do is ask whether the same definitions and vocabulary are being used. It turns out, for example, that Millennials have by and large shifted to a more holistic, proactive, lifestyle-centered concept of health rather than simply the absence of illness. In terms of health, millennials are more likely to focus on ingredient quality and transparency (organic, farm-to-table, non-GMO) than nutrition. Healthy eating and exercise are on the rise, but many people still struggle with obesity, lack of access to health care, and a higher tendency to drink when stressed. And the increasing emphasis on mental health – such as Millennials high rates of stress, anxiety, and depression – is a major concern for the health insurance industry. We also know that the vocabulary has changed, such as rejection of the label “environmentalist.”

Next, it’s important to avoid applying a one-size-fits-all formula to define and measure a health and sustainability-conscious lifestyle. Studies suggest that while Millennials may lag behind the general public in conservation through actions like recycling, avoiding disposable packages, or limiting water and energy usage at home, they are more invested in buying green products, producing their own food or cleaning products, installing renewable energy generation, and participate in swapping or borrowing memberships rather than private ownership. There are many ways to pursue a health, environment, and sustainability-conscious lifestyle, which often reflect the broader social and economic issues that help shape a generation.

The growth of the sharing economy is a great example of how Millennials employ online and mobile solutions to create and experiment with alternative models. Yes, economic considerations are also major drivers of this trend, but there’s a lot more at play than saving money. In fact, they are often willing to pay more for products with higher standards, both in terms of social and environmental sustainability, health benefits, and the products’ quality and durability. Fast fashion is fading, replaced increasingly by items boasting enduring style and function, often combined with social or environmental give-back programs. Again, the internet is enabling this shift by helping companies cut out middle-men or blend online with brick-and-mortar stores to meet these emerging market demands. And companies need to share a compelling vision not only to secure young consumers, but also employees as Millennials overwhelmingly want to work for companies that share their values.

Finally, healthy and sustainable lifestyles are becoming a cultural norm which will have a powerful impact on long-term behavior. Even if personal comfort and convenience trump other avowed beliefs in the daily habits of people in their twenties, there is reason to anticipate how those beliefs and attitudes will shape actions later in life. After all, one of the dangers in comparing generations is the difficulty of accounting for differences in age. If we focus on current actions and attitudes, it is hard to adjust for the influences of various stages of personal life, family life, and career. Even within the Millennial group, it is awkward to compare people in their early thirties to new high school graduates. It does seem clear though that they share a more international outlook than the Boomers, which re-frames their attitudes towards environmental and social sustainability as global issues, particularly when weighed against national economic prerogatives.

Even when different generations share a health, environment, or sustainability consciousness, it can be expressed as very different needs and desires. That rich variety opens exciting opportunities for us to craft our own unique responses. At the end of the day that is the joy and challenge of trying to understand emerging consumers. The complexity of influences that shape our attitudes is what makes it so endlessly fascinating and rewarding to work in this field.