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Economic Struggles are Biggest Hurdle to Millennials 'Going Green'

An estimated 80 million Americans, ranging in age between their late teens and mid-30s, will change the way Americans live within the next decade, according to a report written by John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute.

With a growing demand among young adults to live in more connected, urban communities, it remains unclear if they will make the push toward a more environmentally sustainable future.

"The age of suburbanization and growing homeownership is over," McIlwain said in his 2010 report. "The demographics of the next decade indicate that the market for urban living will continue to grow."

Of those individuals comprising Generation Y, or Gen-Y, 76 percent place a high value on walkability in communities, according to an Urban Land Institute survey.

The demand for residential developments that decrease the need for motor vehicles will continue to rise, while demand could eventually fade for remote suburban developments, the Urban Land Institute reported.

According to a 2008 survey, 77 percent of Gen-Y prefer to walk rather than drive, live close to each other, to services, to meeting places and to work, McIlwain said.

Despite the growing trend for a more compact, urban lifestyle, coupled with a decreased dependence on vehicles powered by fossil fuel, millennials are far less likely to refer to themselves as environmentalists compared to members of older generations, according to a Pew Research study.

However, that doesn't mean members of Gen-Y are not engaged in creating a sustainable future or lacking concern for the environment.

Another study indicated that millennials are more supportive of alternative energy development than older generations who support expanding exploration for oil, coal and natural gas.

A 2010 Michigan State University study conducted by members of the university and research from Deloitte Automotive Group titled "Gen Y + Sustainability" reported that in the late 1970s and 1980s, the environmental movement gained momentum.

As the movement grew through the decades, it became mainstream in large part to a governmental push toward environmental education, a number of contamination disasters that occurred in that time and the rising cost of oil, according to the study.

"It should be noted, however, that until recently, the ‘green movement' has come at little or no cost to the average consumer," the study reports.

According to the university's survey data, members of Generation Y are concerned about the environment when making purchases, but with no economic benefit in making environmentally friendly choices, it is unlikely they would do so.

It is unlikely Gen-Y consumers will pay more for a product just because it helps the environment, the study reports, citing a need for continued education and advancement in sustainable technologies to appeal to the demographic.

"I am not in a financial situation to be concerned with social or environmental status right now," a Gen-Y respondent is quoted saying in the study, referring to economical motivations when purchasing a vehicle.

The study concluded that in order to sell automobiles effectively to members of Gen-Y, companies would not only need to appeal to their interest in ‘going green' but also provide a clear economic benefit to the purchase as well.

"So in addition to ‘saving the world,' consumers must feel as though they are receiving a true economic value with their purchase," the study reported.

Economic factors will also contribute to the change in the housing market, according to McIlwain’s report.

"Generation Y's attitudes toward homeownership have been changed by the housing crisis and the recession," McIlwain reports. "The number of people trapped by underwater homes that cannot be sold and the millions of foreclosures are tempering their interest in buying their own homes, and they will be renters by necessity and by choice rather than homeowners for years ahead."

Members of Gen-Y are the first generation in the modern era to experience high levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment. This is coupled with lower levels of wealth and personal income than the previous two generations experienced at the same age, a March 2014 Pew Research Study reported.

"They have to pay off school loans, and the ‘bank of dad' and ‘mommy money' have disappeared as their parents struggle to rebuild their retirement portfolios," McIlwain said. "They have lost the confidence of previous generations that homeownership is a way to develop wealth. Instead, they believe that they will have to save for retirement, especially since they have a low level of confidence in the future viability of Social Security."

Despite facing economic uncertainty and being burdened by debt, the Pew Research study concluded that most Millennials are optimistic about their future.

"Many people I know are very against pollution and global warming and all types of problems with our environment, but they all agree that having a car that supports the well-being of the environment is a hard thing to commit to when our finances are holding us back," another Gen-Y respondent is quoted saying in the university survey.