This generation is skeptical of America’s economic system. No wonder.
By Christopher Koopman
The Wall Street Journal
October 19, 2016
About 70 million millennials will be eligible to vote in this year’s presidential election, according to Pew Research Center. How my generation votes matters more than ever—which makes the results of an April Harvard Institute of Politics survey seem very troubling. About a third of Americans ages 18-29 support socialism, while not even half back capitalism. College graduates view capitalism more favorably, but these still don’t appear to be encouraging numbers.
Analyzing similar data in February, pollster Frank Luntz wrote that “the hostility of young Americans to the underpinnings of the American economy and the American government ought to frighten every business and political leader.” There’s only one problem with this pessimism about millennials: As a generation, we don’t really know what we believe.
Clear majorities of millennials—whether they’re Bernie Bros, Trumpians or die-hard libertarians—point to the economy as their top issue. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most of us entered adulthood during the Great Recession and tried to find work in its aftermath. This harrowing experience left millions preoccupied with economic issues and convinced that the system is rigged against them.
Does this mean millennials have come to disdain capitalism? Not exactly. We might call it “capitalism” in opinion surveys, but in reality young people are rejecting a system that they have only been led to believe is capitalism.
For many, capitalism isn’t about free enterprise, nor is it about the startups and innovation. When they hear the term, millennials think about Wall Street bailouts, corporate greed, political scandals and tax codes riddled with loopholes for the wealthy and connected. Yet this has little to do with what equal-opportunity capitalism actually is: A system providing all Americans with a chance to use their unique skills to create a business with free access to different markets and customers.
Strip away the titles of “capitalism” and “socialism,” and the responses become drastically different. A 2015 Reason-Rupe poll found that college-aged respondents are far more supportive of a “free-market system” (72%) than they are of a “government-managed economy” (49%). In reality, millennials—regardless of party or ideology—have arrived at a surprising consensus: We support free markets, are very much unhappy with the current state of affairs, and are still looking for change.
This is good news, but it should also serve as a warning. Perhaps at no time in history has it been more important to differentiate genuine capitalism from the mutant system that has dominated economic policy over the last decade. Yet Mr. Luntz’s analysis is still absolutely right: Millennials are hostile to the underpinnings of the American economy. We simply shouldn’t confuse that economy with capitalism.
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