Why does age so clearly predict attitudes towards renewables (and Brexit)?

A person’s age is the best predictor of whether he or she thinks renewable sources of energy are a good idea. In a recent YouGov survey for Bulb, a new UK utility, pollsters looked at whether households would switch to low carbon sources if the price was the same as fossil fuels. 65% of 18-24 year olds would use a renewable source of supply but only 44% of those over 55 would do the same. (In other words a majority of 55+ householders would prefer to stick with fossil fuels even if there was no financial penalty to switching). 

Similarly, 74% of 18-24 year olds thought that ‘Renewable energy is something we should all buy’. This falls to 48% among those over 55. (Why are these numbers higher than those in the previous paragraph? Because people are more likely to offer general support than commit themselves to actually do something). 

Look at the poll’s numbers and another recent survey of opinions comes to mind. The UK’s June referendum showed a very similar pattern. Support for renewables and for Remaining falls sharply across the age ranges. The two charts below show how attitudes shift in step as people age.

Source: Bulb YouGov survey and Lord Ashcroft poll on Brexit voting and social attitudes

Source: Bulb YouGov survey and Lord Ashcroft poll on Brexit voting and social attitudes

Source: Bulb YouGov survey and Lord Ashcroft poll on Brexit voting and social attitudes

Source: Bulb YouGov survey and Lord Ashcroft poll on Brexit voting and social attitudes

In the Referendum, social class had a profound impact on the likelihood of voting to leave.[1] 54% of ABC1s wanted to stay in but only 36% of the C2DE group. But the attitude towards renewables doesn’t vary much across classes; 59% of ABC1s say that ‘renewable energy is something we should all buy’ and this number only falls to 54% for C2DEs. Willingness to buy renewables at the same price as fossil energy is 53% among the wealthier group, with a similar figure of 49% among the C2DEs. Other demographic indices also don't help predict attitudes towards renewables.

Why is age so important a crucial predictor of attitude towards low-carbon energy? Is it the same reason that drove the young to vote differently to their parents on Europe? 

The wonderful post-referendum Ashcroft poll gives a possible clue. As well as garnering information about how people voted, it surveyed social attitudes and looked at how well they predicted attitudes to Brexit. The poll showed that the young are very much more inclined to think that trends such as multiculturalism and feminism are ‘forces for good’. Similarly, belief in the positive impact of ‘The Green movement’ is far more common among the young. Crucially, if you felt that these social movements are broadly good you were very much more likely to vote to stay in the EU.  By contrast, social class had a very limited correlation with what might be called ‘progressive’ attitudes, as well as being a poor predictor of voting patterns.

Put simply, my hypothesis is therefore this. Attitudes towards renewable energy are closely correlated with views on Brexit because the move to low carbon sources is seen as a force for good among younger people, similar to feminism and social liberalism. Older voters see it as another ‘progressive’ movement which they want absolutely nothing to do with. Broadening democratic support for the energy switch therefore depends partly on ensuring it is no longer grouped with the progressive causes it is at the moment. 

In Energy Democracy, a book recently published by two of the foremost specialists on the German Energiewende (roughly ‘Energy Transition’), the authors make one crucial point throughout their book.(2) Renewables have never been seen as a particularly liberal or progressive cause in German and local generation of electricity has long been something that political conservatives have strongly supported. Community-owned wind farms, viewed as almost Marxist in the UK, are fully accepted by the mainstream voter in Germany. Money stays within the local community, and reliance on faceless utilities is reduced, says the typical 60 year old town dweller. Finding a way to transfer these attitudes to England and Wales - Scotland seems to get the point already - is one of the main challenges facing those of us who believe a fast switch to a low-carbon energy system is vital and also beneficial. 


[1] Lord Ashcroft’s poll is at http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/How-the-UK-voted-Full-tables-1.pdf

[2] Energy Democracy; Germany's Energiewende to Renewables, Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

[3] The YouGov survey for Bulb was kindly given to me by Hayden Wood, co-founder.