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Empathy, Authenticity, and Action: Reconnecting Gen Z with Climate Concern

ECOLOGYEmpathy, Authenticity, and Action: Reconnecting Gen Z with Climate Concern

The “Debutantes ’23” study, conducted just before the parliamentary elections, showed that environmental and air quality issues are not high on the list of worries and fears of young voters. Instead, financial topics such as inflation, cost of living, and their personal financial situation, as well as mental health, are more pressing to them. However, many respondents admitted that inclusion of environmental and climate issues, as well as air quality, is important to them in election programs. Experts emphasize that at least part of the blame for the theoretical lack of interest of young people in the climate issue lies in communication and the way the older generation talks to them about it.

There are many stereotypes surrounding Gen Z, often referred to as the “me, me, me” or “selfie” generation and characterized as selfish, detached from reality, and constantly engrossed in smartphone screens. Many believe that this generation prefers to build online relationships instead of those in the real world.

“From our ‘Gen Z’ report emerges several key observations,” says Kuba Antoszewski from Kantar Poland. “Young people are heavily focused on self-presentation, self-creation, and creating their own image. They use media, which they actually create themselves, to do so. They also have many fears, doubts related to a lack of a sense of security in the current world, a lack of trust in the environment. Consequently, we also see a crisis of authorities, to which they respond: ‘I check’. Using available options and tools, they are able to check whether what reaches them is true or not. They base their behavior on this rather than unreflective trust in some people or institutions.”

From the “Debutantes ’23” report prepared by the Twenties, Clean Air Fund, and Profeina agency, it appears that the language of “ecology” and “environment” is not an effective way to communicate with young voters. These words, overused by both politicians and companies, have lost their power. Young people aged 18-21 have other problems, fears, and values. They are more concerned with things like cost of living, financial situations, and the mental health of others.

Similar conclusions were drawn from the “Earthlings Attack” report from 2022, prepared by Kantar Poland, the European Climate Foundation, UN Global Compact Network Poland, and the Twenties agency. It shows that in the 18-24 age group, 23% of young people agreed with the statement “others are responsible for the ecological disaster, I don’t intend to do anything about it”. Furthermore, this age group was twice as likely to indicate that “it’s already too late to prevent a climate catastrophe”.

Kantar Poland’s studies show that Gen Z’s representatives feel the most constrained by economic and social problems, especially unequal access to decent jobs or healthcare. They are likely to be the first generation to earn less than their parents. Over the last few years, their situation has been affected by unprecedented crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, which has triggered a global economic slowdown.

Experts point out that the narrative surrounding climate change, which creates the illusion that it is something distant and not a daily problem, is also problematic. A change in both form of communication and means of transmission is needed to reach Gen Z with messages about the environment and climate and to change their attitude.

“When it comes to communication about climate change and pro-environmental actions, you have to reach out to where his recipients are – that is, where young people are on a daily basis, where they have fun, seek inspiration, talk to friends and learn about the world,” says Mateusz Urbański from DEM Interactive. “The channels where young people are most present today are definitely TikTok, platforms like Twitch, Discord, but also more traditional social media such as Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.”

Patrycja Radosz, a psychology student active in social media, adds: “Often, we forget that – when talking to young people – we’re just speaking to people. Yes, young people have a somewhat separate culture, a different language, different habits, sometimes a different sense of humor, different content formats appeal to them. But we are still just people, fellow citizens, we live in the same environment, we encounter the same problems. Therefore, it is worth not standing above them, but staying with them.”

“Most young people say they have no authorities and for us older people this may be evidence of some massive crisis. It’s not that they don’t have authorities as such, it’s just that this concept needs to be redefined. Authorities are not those who are believed in everything they say, but those who are knowledgeable about certain things. Young people today don’t want to listen to someone who has a patent on knowledge about everything, they want to listen to people whose skills and experience can inspire trust. They don’t say, ‘Listen to me because I am an authority,’ but, ‘I know about this, I can show you particular benefits, I can convince you with arguments,” emphasizes Kuba Antoszewski.

A change in narrative worked in last year’s parliamentary elections. Attendance among young people (18-29 years), who were thought to be uninterested in politics, proved to be record-breaking and reached about 70%.

“When creating election-related content, responding to questions, I simply presented myself as just another voter: ‘Hey, these are my first elections, these are your first elections, let’s go to them together, let’s help each other out, let’s act toward a common goal’. I think there are places where authorities are welcome, but in education on topics that should accompany us every day, they should be somehow woven into our everyday life,” says Patrycja Radosz.

Kuba Antoszewski points out that when addressing young people with messages about environmental and climate problems, it’s worthwhile to focus on issues that are close to them on a daily basis.

“We need to forget about what we want to say, which is that we are dealing with a climate crisis, and focus more on two additional elements. On the one hand, the context, that is, creating messages that directly relate to situations that are close to young people. And the second issue is to play with the format. Most of the messages that young people create for themselves are humor-based, distorting reality, playful. It is the context and format that play the most important role and are the best vehicle for the message to reach the young generation,” said the expert from Kantar Poland.

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