Young generation protesting for climate. One person holds up a cardboard with the text: There is no plante B

How the pandemic has triggered young people’s impatience regarding climate change.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to hold a speech on May the 5th, remembrance day of the Dutch liberation in 1945. For this special occasion a group of young people were invited to ask Angela Merkel questions about freedom. One question in particular struck a quite familiar chord for younger generations. A girl told Merkel that during the corona crisis we’ve seen that politicians are capable of taking quick, drastic measures and combine their forces into a collective effort. However, she noted, for the climate crisis this as of yet has not been the case. How come? In other words; if we are clearly capable of so much, why then do we do so little? 

Young people are often idealistic, still unbound by the constraints of a realistic world and its cold practicalities. Yet with an impatient enthusiasm they pull on society, urging it to leap forward with a revolutionary pace. Since the beginning of time the answer was always the same; be patient, it takes time. In due time, the importance of the cause will hesitatingly be acknowledged by brands and governments and, as change most often occurs, the gears slowly start turning. 

This effect was in a way already observed in 1922 by William F. Ogburn. Cultural lag as he called it described the difference between material and non material culture. Even though the environment is rapidly changing and precious time to do anything about it is running out, our non material world (culture) is having a hard time catching up with this reality. 

But then Covid-19 happened. Almost overnight the world was put on hold. International travel was suspended, the streets were empty, the world was on lockdown. Drastic measures, but they were deemed inevitable because the alternative would be worse. For years there have been calls for more flexible working days. Now even the most traditional companies had to find ways to let their employees work from home. A big transformation, but the alternative would be worse. Many international laboratories worked on a cure. Astronomical amounts of funding were reserved for developing these cures, logistical networks were created for these tests and vaccines. Contracts were signed for distributing vaccines all over the world. Immensely expensive, but the alternative would be even more expensive. 

All in all 2020 showed us something very clearly; when the need is great, we can adapt very fast. It does however leave younger generations guessing why we aren’t moving at the same speed regarding the climate crisis, especially since a poll across 14 countries showed that most people regard the climate crisis as a much bigger crisis than the pandemic. Another (worldwide) poll in late 2020 found that 64% of all people saw climate change as an emergency, requiring urgent responses from countries. This was nearly 70% for younger people and roughly 58% for people over the age of 60. 

The Netherlands has been sued by Urgenda multiple times for not reaching their own climate targets. Despite the pandemic reducing CO2 emissions by 8,8% in 2020, the Netherlands has not reached the target of reducing their emissions by 25% compared to 1990, and emission is expected to rise again in 2021. 

Where normally younger generations would expect to be met with practical objections, they might not accept these anymore. They have seen that big changes can be made when the occasion is dire enough. Generation Z is a realistic generation but that does not mean they don’t have a strong wish for a better world. They are very aware that they will be disproportionally impacted by the changing climate compared to older generations. Some of them are even quite bitter with the world they are being left, illustrated by the increasing anti ‘boomer’ sentiment. 

Many generations have had a moment or two where they become disillusioned by the cold realism of the world, more often than not clashing hard with their youthful ideas and progressive values. Millennials saw their families impacted by the financial crisis. Whereas many people went bankrupt, got fired or are still recovering, big institutions that stood at the forefront of the crisis were deemed ‘too big to fail’. A rite of passage into the real world. It is events like this that form a collective societal frame of reference shared among a generation. And this in turn explains why they place an emphasis on certain needs or values. It is essential for brands to be aware of these preferences if you want to connect to younger generations. 

What does this mean for your brand?
Generation Z is increasingly fed up with the cynical pragmatists ruling the world, company or country. It is becoming more and more apparent that not taking sufficient action against climate change is rather a choice than an external practical constraint. For generation Z the time is coming where radical action might be the rational choice for the government and companies to take. Young people are looking for actions, so show rather than tell.