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Should We Take Millennials' 'Rejection' of Capitalism Seriously?

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
New Activism
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Millennials keep making headlines. After the media was trying to figure out why so many of them support (or even love!) Bernie Sanders, a new survey brought up somewhat more surprising news: The majority of millennials reject capitalism.

Yes, you’ve heard it right. A Harvard University survey, which polled young adults between ages 18 and 29, found that “51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. Just 42 percent said they support it.” In addition, 33 percent said they supported socialism.

Analysts scratched their heads trying to make some sense of it. Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post wrote the results could indicate “that today's youngest voters are more focused on the flaws of free markets.” Zach Lustbader, a senior at Harvard involved in conducting the poll suggested that capitalism could mean different things to different people, and for millennials it is mostly associated with the financial crisis. Lisa Manley of Cone Communications framed it in terms of the need to move toward a more responsible capitalism: “There is a movement already that’s called ‘conscious capitalism,’” she said. “I think it begins to address the concerns that underly the Harvard survey results.” Finally, Abe Sauer of brandchannel noted that “whether they know it or not, millennials has been drivers of some of the most capitalistic phenomenon in the last century.”

So, can we actually learn something from the survey findings? Should we take them seriously?

To answer these questions, let’s first look at the near past. In 2011 a Pew Research Center survey found out that 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans had positive views of capitalism, while 47 percent had negative views. At the same time, this age group was more positive than negative about socialism (49 percent versus 43 percent, respectively). In 2010, a similar survey from Pew Research Center revealed that more people in this age group viewed both capitalism (48 percent versus 43 percent) and socialism (49 percent versus 43 percent) negatively.

These results indicate that there is nothing new about millennials’ dissatisfaction with capitalism, at least since the 2008 financial crisis. It also may indicate that millennials indeed associate capitalism mostly with the great recession and therefore have negative views about it. But we need to compare the post-financial crisis with pre-financial crisis data to know if this the case or not. Still, given that the financial crisis is considered to have been particularly influential on millennials, my guess is that this assumption may have merit.

And still, it looks like we are surprised to hear that so many American millennials don’t view capitalism positively, just like we are surprised that so many of them support a presidential candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist instead of a mainstream candidate (although they will settle eventually for the latter). But we’re also surprised about the success of Donald Trump, aren’t we? We seem to be surprised in general these days -- refusing to accept the fact that perhaps a growing number of people in the U.S. are not satisfied with ‘business as usual’ and wonder if there are better alternatives.

With millennials, though, the surprise might have something to do with the fact there are a growing number of data points suggesting that American millennials, the 92 million people born between 1980-2000, are back on track: Their spending in general is expected to grow in 15 percent in the next five years, not to mention data suggesting that millennials are going back to buying cars and homes in the suburbs. Add millennials’ tendency “to own multiple devices such as smartphones, tablets and gaming systems," and it's easy to understand why it looks like they're reintegrating into the capitalist machine, not resisting it.

This also has a lot to do with framing. Look everywhere around you, and you see that millennials are framed not as a generation rejecting capitalism, but as a generation of consumers with unique traits -- or, in other words: Just like any other generation, they have their own identity, but they are still part of the capitalistic system.

Here are some few examples for this type of framing:


  • “Millennials are much like other shoppers — just a whole lot more connected." (Accenture)

  • “We found a generation engaged in consuming and influencing, one that embraces business and government and believes that such institutions can bring about global change, one that is generally optimistic, and one that has often unexpected attitudes and behaviors.” (BCG)

  • “The most exciting part of the millennial story to me is that where up to this point we had really seen companies take a reactive approach to this consumer, who they didn’t really understand but their behaviors were changing – it was more about playing defense. Today, companies are taking proactive approach to investing in areas where they think this consumer is going and that’s going to have profound effect on the consumer economy going forward.” (Goldman Sachs)

Another example of the importance of framing when it comes to millennials is their participation in the sharing economy as service providers: 51 percent of the Americans who offered services in the sharing economy are millennials, which is much higher than their share in the labor force that is estimated in 34 percent. Is this a manifestation of flexibility and greater choice as some suggest, or a reflection of a market mechanism allowing millennials to cope with downward mobility, while making them poorer at the same time, as others claim?

Which narrative is the right one? Is it a story of a spoiled, entitled generation that is “all about instant gratification” as presented in this SNL sketch? Is it a story about a generation that had an economic setback, but eventually is not that different from other generations? Or maybe this is a story about young people who were uniquely punished by the recession and feel betrayed by a system that was supposed to provide them with better prospects than driving for Uber.

To some extent, it’s probably all of the above. But of course one of these narratives will become more dominant eventually. It’s hard to predict which one, as predictability is almost impossible in a VUCA world (think of the Donald Trump example). However, if I still need to place my bets, I would go with the last option. Capitalism is just a choice we make, and like any other choice that doesn’t work that well, you shouldn’t be surprised (or amazed) to see it replaced by another choice that could provide millennials better prospects than the unpredictable gig economy or working for corporate America.

Bernie Sanders may be losing in his bid for the presidency, but that doesn’t mean American capitalism is winning -- at least not for some millennials.

Image credit: Pixabay

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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