For many of us, making decisions in the interest of our future selves is easier said than done. We know we should save for retirement, maintain healthy diets, or devote an extra hour to organizing on Sundays in the service of a low-stress work week, but we often struggle to follow through with these future-oriented tasks. Why? Because humans have an inborn tendency to favor the present over an abstract future. This present bias can mean that individuals are more likely to choose a proximate reward over a longer-term but potentially more substantial payout.1
An excellent example of this pattern in action is the (now infamous) marshmallow test. First coined by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s, the marshmallow test describes a scenario in which an adult places a marshmallow in front of a child and tells them that if they can wait fifteen minutes before eating it, they can have a second one. The experimenter then leaves the child alone to wrestle with the temptation to devour the treat sitting before them.
It was once thought that “passing” the marshmallow test predicted success in later life. Though these findings have since been discredited, Mischel’s study remains an illustration of the inexorable pull of the present, and the challenge of shifting behavior for the benefit of one’s future self.2,3
As adults, we are constantly faced with metaphorical marshmallows, such as splurging on a new pair of shoes today versus saving for a vacation six months from now, or eating a third cookie despite our goals to maintain a healthy diet. Similarly, when it comes to changing our behavior for the future benefit of the planet, we often struggle, opting to drive rather than walk, ordering a juicy steak instead of a vegetarian option, or springing for some new clothes when our old wardrobe is still in great condition. Though the long-term reward may be less exciting, ultimately we would all benefit from changing our present behaviors to be less environmentally damaging.
What remains to be seen is whether there are generational differences in individuals’ abilities to sacrifice present reward and take action for the future, especially when it comes to combating climate change. Consider Generation Z: born between 1997 and 2015, thus far this cohort seems to be highly aware of the future and is making decisions to benefit their future selves and the planet. Eighteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, for example, has renounced air travel and adopted a wholly vegan diet to reduce carbon emissions.
While Thunberg is a highly visible example of climate activism, data suggest that others in her age group are making similar choices. A recent report conducted by the British Food Standards Agency found that individuals in Generation Z “are more likely to be changing their behavior around meat consumption than any other age group, and they are more likely to say they are doing this for environmental reasons.”4 It is evident that Gen-Zers are keenly aware of the present and future environmental impacts of human activity and are willing to shift their behavior accordingly.
Interestingly, this future awareness does not necessarily equate to long-term patience, at least not when it comes to our choices of what to purchase. As consumers, both Millennials and Generation Z are characterized by short attention spans and a need for immediate reward:5,6 brands need to be “fast, engaging, and relevant” in order to attract young shoppers.7
So, how do these consumptive patterns square with the younger generation’s future-oriented activism? Though today’s adolescents and young adults are known for being swift shoppers, they also want to support businesses that have strong ethical grounding and good moral practices. Gen-Z expects fast gratification, but not if it comes at the expense of people or the planet.8
What can we learn from this young collective? When it comes to shifting their actions for the good of the planet, Generation Z is ready. They are willing to change their day-to-day behavior in the interest of the future world and make their consumptive choices accordingly. If tomorrow’s marshmallow is a cooler, healthier planet, we would all benefit from resisting the urge to indulge today and focus instead on acting in the interest of the collective benefits to come.