The Stats Guy: The generational demographics behind the climate change conflict

The generational lens can help us to speculate about the future direction of environmental politics in Australia.

The generational lens can help us to speculate about the future direction of environmental politics in Australia. Image: TND

Let’s not worry about the physical details of climate change in this piece. There are scientists much better placed than me to explore this perspective. Instead, let’s examine environmental concerns through the demographic lens.

The scientific community and all environmentalists, from moderates to extremists in the field, agree that as humans we impact our environment. It matters what and how much we take out of the ground and what and how much we pump into our atmosphere, soils and rivers. Our actions impact the planet we live on.

If virtually all relevant experts agree on the basics, why don’t all politicians and business leaders rally around the cause?

Even hardened environmentalists must accept that our country’s collective economic success matters. Environmental issues will only be at the top of the national agenda once Australians have their basic needs covered and feel financially secure.

In the last two decades the Australian middle class has been squeezed. The cost of living grew at a much faster rate than wages, home ownership is but a dream for many, households carry way more debt, and about one in twelve workers (close to a million people) holds more than one job.

If you can’t afford housing, are worried about your income and can’t pay for childcare, bigger picture environmental concerns will not be on the top of your agenda.

If the environmental movement isn’t taking the concerns of the struggling lower and middle class seriously, we will continue to see environmentalism be a politised issue at the edge of politics, rather than a central concern. Economic success is a prerequisite to politics focusing on the environment.

The Australian habit of viewing environmentalism as an issue of the political left is seriously slowing any meaningful climate action.

Norway’s fossil fuel reserves are happily exploited to fund renewable energies. Photo: Getty

Conservatism and environmentalism are viewed as opposing views in Australia. This is utter nonsense. Politicians on the left might even be hurting the environmental movement by equating environmentalism with left politics.

In Germany, it was a conservative government that decided to phase out nuclear and coal – a move unthinkable for conservative Australians as of now.

In Norway, the nation’s huge fossil fuel reserves are happily exploited, and its profits channelled into a sovereign wealth fund that invests in renewable energies – a move currently unthinkable for progressive Aussie leftists.

How to sell environmental policies?

Conservative Australians don’t react well to having scientific facts thrown in their direction with the smug undertone of intellectual superiority. Climate change and sustainability must be communicated in a way that completely avoids language that is ridiculing, shaming or moralising. These three are sadly the go-to modes of communication.

The environmental movement in Australia might want to take inspiration from the success of the Norwegian model. Viewing Norway as a successful model requires the left to embrace a pro-business, dare I say capitalist world view. Not an easy ask, as this means the comfort of perceiving oneself as intellectually superior must be left behind.

The depoliticisation of something as crucial as the environment must take national (and personal!) priority. The political opposition is not the enemy.

There is an increasing generational element to the climate discussion. Naïve, poorly informed young folks want to save the planet and moralise and shame ignorant, profit-hungry, poorly informed old folks who don’t give a damn about the planet’s future as long as they have a nice retirement.

If only it was so simple. People are much more nuanced in their world views than these stereotypes suggest. Are there any generalisations that are at least a bit more helpful than the old greedy-righties vs young naïve-lefties narrative?

I think the generational lens can help us to speculate about the future direction of environmental politics in Australia.

The Baby Boomers (born 1946-’63) are slowly leaving the workforce and political leadership positions behind. Over half of the generation is already of retirement age and political positions of power are being largely handed over to younger generations. Their influence on policy directions is shrinking even though they remain a politically active group and continue to be a very wealthy generation with economic influence.

By now all but one state premier (Dominic Perrottet was born in 1982 and is technically a Millennial) and the Prime Minister are members of Gen X (born 1964-81). Even though Xers are a small generation, we must not underestimate their influence. There is a level of seniority built into many leadership positions. You become prime minister at 52 – Scott Morrison was born in 1968 – and the average CEO in Australia is 54.

These top jobs are firmly Gen X’s territory during the whole of the 2020s. This means climate policies and business strategy aren’t set by Greta Thunberg’s Gen Z (born 2000-17) but her Xer parents.

To appeal to Gen X, messaging around the issue of climate change must be pragmatic and solution-focused. Moralising will not yield any positive results as neither Xers nor Boomers are likely swayed by it. I suspect Australia, as led by Gen X, to be much more open to hyper-pragmatic climate change solutions like the Norwegian model. Pragmatic, fact-driven, and outcome-focused – that’s how Gen X operates.

Gen Z-ers like Greta Thunberg will need to appeal pragmatic Generation X to achieve effective climate change policy. Photos: Getty

The problem here is that Millennials (1982-’99), who are by far the biggest generation in Australia now, will need to curb their desire to make climate change a moral issue. If climate change continues to be moralised, if it continues to look and feel like virtue signalling to older generations, the pragmatic Gen X leaders might be less inclined to act.

With Gen X at the helm, now is the time for a pragmatic approach to climate change. This might well include investing fossil fuel money into clean technologies, setting us up for a truly renewable technological future. This Norwegian approach of leveraging profits of the Australian fossil fuel industry is probably going to be disliked by many Millennials who think any future extraction of fossil fuels to be immoral.

While Gen X is in the driver seat, Millennials are best to support the Norwegian approach during the 2020s. In the 2030s, when Millennials will not only be the largest generation but will also be of leadership age, Australia might well see less compromise-driven climate policies.

Topics: Data
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