Looking back at the Covid MassSense; Part 3: Age and the anticipation of change

March 28, 2023

In this look at the MassSense data, we turn to age. The older participants are, the more prominent the anticipation of change in people’s values becomes. The oldest also see the possibility of building bridges between ideological and institutional change. One of the dimensions we asked participants to assess the Covid-associated images against was the domain of coming change – between financial change, change in ideology or values, and change in formal institutions, which domain, or combination of domains, was more prominent in participant’s expectations?

So why was potential, anticipated change selected? Why does it matter? We have talked elsewhere in this blog about the importance of expectation, attention, and anticipatory awareness in the cognitive capacity to take action. Our contexts, beliefs, and environments prime us to notice certain things, and the things we notice are the ones we can act upon. The change we tend to expect is the change we are likely to participate in and make come about. So addressing anticipated change gives us a dimension that tugs at the landscape of possibility, of the things that are more likely to happen than others. The other side of the coin is that, when it comes to human beings, change assessment is rarely, if ever, a passive calculation – it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when it comes to those prophecies, we can start seeing that age matters, as the image below shows.

The MassSense also included older and younger people, but here we’ll focus on the three age groups that are best represented in our population. People from 26 to 40 see change as possible in all three domains simultaneously but place more emphasis on the possibility of change in people’s economic priorities and less on attitudes towards what is right. Those aged 41 to 55 emphasise attitudes much more strongly and move away from changes in financial priorities alone. Finally, the oldest group here, people from 56-70, move away from the centre, maintain a strong focus on ideology, and interestingly show a tendency to combine ideology with its institutional/legal expression that no other group does. The ability to explore age groups at a greater nuance is an advantage here – most age-related studies around the environment and sustainability tend to focus on strongly divergent groups, such as young adults versus seniors. Those that do not can sometimes show interesting contextual associations.

Existing research shows little compelling evidence for systematic age or generational gaps in environmental concerns and policy preferences in Western democracies. Instead, we see increased environmental concern across all generations – people care regardless of age. Multiple papers, including this one from New Zealand, share this finding. In the words of the article from Switzerland, linked above, “Generations live together and ideas travel across generations.” The contextual nuance comes in recognising that age is not the only factor – significant generational events can influence attitudes too. Such generational events, such as a major contamination scandal or a flood, are often highly contextual.

A relevant note of caution here: like the vast majority of formal studies on the subject, this data is cross-sectional, not longitudinal. In other words, it looks at people who belong to different age groups now, not at the same group of people as it grows and, potentially, changes. But with this in mind, we need to say that a difference in assessments and reactions between age groups is almost certainly not a difference in whether people care, but in the direction that caring takes and how it is expressed. The practical expression of concern becomes especially relevant when it comes to political involvement, attitudes and behaviour. This also tends to vary according to age. For example, we know that older people tend to emphasise electoral participation and the “institutionalised” ways of expressing their citizenship, which is consistent with what we see here for our older group. 

Finally, since we couldn’t represent the youngest and the oldest, we can spotlight their voices through their visions of utopian change:

We got here by building a genuine and sustainable relationship with the land (not in terms of resources but in terms of how we see and speak of her). We no longer see Earth as a resource or something to be developed but rather a great gifted who has many teachings. When we think of Mother Earth we instinctively relate her to the “divine feminine”. One way I have already experienced change such as this is by gathering those interested in climate action and/or equality and sharing our experiences. Though it my sound like there is not a lot in common, the language we (government, developers, educators) is the same as any abuser. It is important we talk about, understand, and challenge this deeply rooted pedagogy in a holistic way.

16-25 years-old woman, US/Canada

Decentralized, non-monopolized entrepreneurial economy Massive wealth redistribution so that everyone has enough Radical application of best new technologies to mitigate climate change Global commitment to rapid and massive reduction in carbon emissions Global preparation for inescapable impacts of climate change, especially for the most vulnerable populations

70+ years-old man, US/Canada


Banner image by Tara Scahill on Unsplash

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