Today’s youth reject capitalism, but what do they want to replace it?

Blasi, Joseph, Kruse, Douglas L. | April 10, 2018 | Leave a Comment

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Today’s youth are increasingly unhappy with the way their elders are running the world.

Their ire was most recently expressed when thousands of teenagers and others across the [United States] marched on March 24 demanding more gun control, a little over a month after more than a dozen of their peers were shot and killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But there’s growing evidence that today’s young adults, ranging in age from 18 to 29 or so, are strongly dissatisfied with other fundamental aspects of our political and economic system. Specifically, growing numbers are rejecting capitalism.

This led us – a sociologist and an economist – to wonder how would young people redesign the economic system if they could. The answer, based on recent surveys, should make any status-quo politician seriously rethink their economic policies.

Rejecting capitalism

We first wanted to better understand how young people feel about the current economic system.

So we started by examining a troubling 2016 Harvard University survey that found that 51 percent of American youth aged 18 to 29 no longer support capitalism. Only 42 percent said they back it, while just 19 percent were willing to call themselves “capitalists.”

While it may be true that young people of any generation tend to have less support for incumbent economic and political systems and tend to change their views as they age, past polls on the topic suggest this is a new phenomenon felt especially by today’s youth. A 2010 Gallop poll showed that only 38 percent of young people had a negative view of capitalism – and that was right after the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression, which hit young people especially hard.

What can we make of this? Do they prefer socialism, in which the government more actively regulates and intervenes in the economy and restricts individual choice?

It’s unclear. The Harvard poll showed just 33 percent said they favor socialism. A separate poll, however, conducted in 2015 by conservative-leaning Reason-Rupe, found that young adults aged 18 to 24 have a slightly more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.

Their views contrast markedly with their older peers, who consistently tell pollsters they prefer capitalism by wide margins – more so as their age climbs. Still, the share of the overall population that questions capitalism’s core precepts is around the highest in at least 80 years of polling on the topic.

To be sure, the questions pollsters ask Americans vary significantly from poll to poll, and sample sizes aren’t always large enough to draw firm conclusions.

All the same, the data suggest that today’s young people are part of a vanguard of Americans losing faith in capitalism and ready to embrace something new.

But what do they want?

So if young people are increasingly rejecting capitalism but they’re ambivalent about socialism, what do they want?

To answer this, we need to explore what about capitalism they find so unsatisfying.

A follow-up focus group to the Harvard study concluded that many of these young people feel that “capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.” A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of those 18-34 years of age perceive strong conflicts between the rich and the poor in American society.

A majority of young people said they believe that those with means got there because “they know the right people or were born into wealthy families.”

These views on the inequality inherent in the American economic system command majorities of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, moderates and liberals. To us, this suggests the critical reason young people have lost faith in capitalism is that it has lost its ability to be fair. But they don’t seem to think an alternate system such as socialism can fix the problem.

Rather, we can begin to piece together what might work, in their view, by examining a 2015 survey by Public Policy Polling, which asked participants their views on employee-owned companies and government intervention to encourage them.

The poll found that 75 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support this, far more than every other age category, while 83 percent said employee-owned companies are as American as apple pie, hot dogs and baseball.

So these polls in a way suggest young people don’t want less capitalism, they want more of it. They just want to make sure it’s shared more broadly, such as by making it easier for more of us to become capitalists and share in the wealth we collectively create.

As two professors meeting this generation daily in our classrooms, we have been surprised by the strong support for these concepts in our college courses on economics and corporate governance.

Other surveys suggest that the desire for a more inclusive form of capitalism is becoming more widely held. A 2016 Gallup State of the American Workplace survey found that 40 percent of all American workers would leave their company to work for one that had profit-sharing.

And it’s becoming increasingly easy to do that as more companies in the U.S. embrace employee ownership in one form or another, some drawn by its ability to reduce turnover and improve economic performance. And just last year, a company started up in Silicon Valley offering certification of employee-owned businesses “to build an employee-owned economy.”

Gunning for the economy

What Americans witnessed on March 24 was an energetic, dynamic and powerful new political force in America.

Right now it’s focused on guns. But this force may well turn its attention to the structure of corporations and an economic system that has led to ever-widening levels of inequality.

Just as lawmakers may want to rethink their views on gun rights, they may also want to begin re-examining their understanding of what capitalism is supposed to look like.

The Conversation


Joseph Blasi, J. Robert Beyster Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing, School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University and Douglas L. Kruse, Distinguished Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Rutgers University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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  • Mary L. Keller

    Is anyone else surprised that comments here sound so certain and so angry about the young people of the world and the socialists? Recommendations for purging? Is this a symptom of “the medium is the message?” I subscribe to MAHB to build alliances, and it looks like I’m not in the right place. Gender analysis of the rhetoric found in the comments perhaps shines some light on the larger challenges facing humans and the biosphere.

    • Thank you Mary Keller. In responding to the comments I believe you are referencing I was struggling to balance my role with the MAHB and my personal reactions as a young person to the comments, and that caused an unnecessary delay in my response. I appreciate your willingness to step into the conversation and I do hope you are able to build alliances through the MAHB.

      I tried to reach out to you via email, but your address bounced back. My email is erika [at] mahbonline [dot] org, if you have any questions or concerns I could address.

  • From my point of view the article is methodologically rather weak. It begins with the questions it asks, that refer to accepting or rejecting “Capitalism”, while at the same time drawing a sharp distinction between capitalism and socialism that quite simply doesn’t exist in the real world. The article lost me completely when stating that by embracing the concept of employee owned companies people vote for more rather than less capitalism. Employee owned companies, traditionally, are a concept from the politically left spectrum, a concept that belongs to the idea of the shared economy, of more egality, of more equally distributed incomes but also, yes, more responsibility of the individual. The attractiveness is not only the prospect of higher shares in profits but mainly the sense of ownership, the sense of being part of something rather than merely a number, an aspect of “human resources” – basically just a piece of equipment that can be replaced at any time if that is in the interest of the faceless entities hiding behind the concept of “shareholder value”. I somewhat know what I am talking about, because I have been working for many years in the R&D dept. of a large employee owned Renewable Energy company in Germany. It is not only about money. It is about fairness, about community spirit, about common goals, about identification with what people do and with each other. This is exactly what this ominous and only vaguely defined thing we call Capital-ISM does not offer. Everything is reduced to money, growth, employment (for the soul purpose of achieving the “production” of more money and growth). It feels pointless. Where are the values? Where the ideals? Where is the freedom? Where is the purpose to exist as a human being on this planet to begin with?

    A had to laugh a bit when the article first insisted young people are not interested in socialism “as an alternative” while then stating, when it came to employee owned companies, they wanted capitalism that is “shared more broadly”. Now by its very definition capitalism is centred on the capital owner, the Capitalist. If capital is “shared more broadly, we could happily speak of a socialization of capital and hence have a nice shorthand for, yes, socialism. If “young people in the US” reject socialism, which may well be so, it might be because they have only a very fuzzy idea of what that term stands for. From an American point of view many EU countries are duly “socialist”, while nobody in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Holland etc. considers themselves overly “government regulated” – at least not more than US citizens.

    On top of it all: the Article is hopelessly US centred, and we gain practically no insight for the global picture. Is there any knowledge about the attitude of young people in SE Asia? India? Russia? China? I recall the fuss about the “Cultural Creatives” in the US half a generation or so ago, which had no impact on change at all. People become ever more reactionary, every more conservative, and right wing movements and totalitarianism are on the rise globally. So – people reject capitalism but the voting behaviour favours total markets – if not totalitarian markets…

  • Dan Costello

    These youth rejecting capitalism, are the same people eating tide pods and snorting condoms are they not? As others have stated, very little of the campus culture embraces free speech unless it is hard leftist these days. In Canada we are seeing a stifling of free speech with Jordan Peterson at The University of Toronto and now at Acadia University with Rick Mehta and elsewhere across Canada. It is definitely a US origin cultural virus. Too many hard leftist professors are aligned and perhaps complicit with Anitfa and pushing a socialist agenda. It is no solution for Canada and only democracies permit political engagement. As for guns, the agenda is driven by the hard left, and the majority of gun crimes appear to be taking place in gun free zones. Socialism has no future here as Trudeau is seeing perpetually dropping polls reflecting his weak support for constitutional rights. Youth learn by example, so it is clearly time to purge hard leftists and Marxists from the academy and adminstration as they appear to be an ecological monoculture of socialism.

    • Balancing free speech with safety is always at play and certainly needs to be carefully scrutinized. “Purging” certain political ideologies from the academy seems it would fall under “stifling free speech” and would therefore be a step in the wrong direction.

      As to your first question, not necessarily. Even if they are, I don’t see how that changes how we should consider their opinions on capitalism.

      • Dan Costello

        There can be no safe space for marxists in the academy. The antifa insurgency does not classify as free speech. Get them out, TY

        • sustainlifenet@msn.com

          Ummm, Dan. To be an opponent of anti-fascism…does that not render you a supporter of fascism? Please make the affirmative argument. I can’t wait to read it! LOL

  • stevenearlsalmony

    Perhaps it is not only our fate as elders to confront certain emerging and rapidly converging global threats to future human well being and environmental health, it may also be that we elders are the last best chance for humankind to save itself and life as we know it from itself by choosing to change our ways and to go in a different direction — along a path less traveled by — before it is too late for human action of whatever kind to protect and preserve the planet we are blessed to inhabit. There can be no excuse given, no logic contrived, no promise made and no hopes raised that can hide for long the willful blindness, hysterical deafness and selective mutism of those elders among us who see the human-driven global predicament that is present before our eyes and choose to do nothing except more of the same unsustainable things which bring us to this fateful crossroads in space-time. Elders of my generation have responsibilities to science and duties to humanity that are being left unattended. Many too many leaders and experts are shrinking from the task at hand by playing the role of Nero, who fiddled while ‘his home’ was ruined. To have consumed so much of this world as my greed-mongering generation has recklessly devoured and to be willingly leaving so little for its children, come what may for coming generations, such degenerate behavior, my friends, is beyond the pale.

    The silence of so many elders is pernicious because our elective mutism serves primarily to promote the narrow and private interests of self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us. It is precisely this clever, arrogant, foolhardy minority of human beings who have unwittingly been permitted to rule the world in our time. What if these masters of the universe have taken the wrong road to the future, and have selfishly chosen to direct humankind down a “primrose path” to produce some sort of unimaginable global ecological wreckage? What if their ‘guidance’ is mainly self-serving and leads to the extirpation of global biodiversity, the irreversible degradation of Earth’s environment, the wanton dissipation of its limited natural resources and the ruination of our planetary home as a place fit for children everywhere to inhabit?

    If we keep following the masters of the universe down the road they have so adamantly advocated and relentlessly pursued, at some future moment, perhaps sooner rather than later, our children are not going to like what they are seeing occur on the surface of Earth. Children everywhere will look back in anger and utter disbelief at what the leading elders and their followers in my generation did so stupidly and failed to do so spectacularly.

    Never in the course of human history have so few acted in ways that are detrimental to so many. Never has a tiny minority in a single generation consumed so ravenously and hoarded so avariciously, come what may. It does not have to be this way. Yes, we can change and if we choose necessary change toward sustainability, then the future is open. There is much to do, much that can be done.

    As things stand, the silence of human beings with feet of clay regarding extant scientific knowledge of what is somehow real could not be more deafening, nor the dark clouds gathering before us look more forbidding. Elective mutism by knowledgeable elders has vanquished ‘the light’ and real sources of hope for the future that science provides to the human family. At the very same time, the mainstream media employs overly educated sycophants and absurdly enriched minions to broadcast support for all human activities that return profits and promote seemingly endless, but soon to become patently unsustainable economic growth.

    If the global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species have indeed precipitated the global ecological predicament looming ominously before the family of humanity in our time, then the capability and power to do things differently resides within us, too. The opportunity presented now is not one to be missed. Who knows, perhaps the children with thank us if we at least try to stop acting as if greed is good; start doing the right things; stop doing what is patently unsustainable and start moving in a new direction toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sizing “too big to fail” corporate leviathans before the world is ruined for future generations by mountains of human solid waste, polluted waterways and oceans, degraded environs and depleted natural resources. After all is said and done, it appears beyond any question or reasonable doubt that our earthly home is not too big to fail; that the gigantic current scale and fully expected worldwide growth of human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities cannot be sustained much longer by planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

  • Meditor

    I think this article conflates the very small student reaction to gun control with larger, more concrete issues. First of all, it is easy to verify that schools allowed, encouraged and literally enabled students to “demonstrate”. That is not a real youth reaction.
    In my view, economic issues are what are mostly reflected by the data. Distrust of capitalism in general is on the rise, particularly distrust of global capitalism. Young people, because of where they are in society, generally have reason for discontent, but young people today have less reason than their parents, and far less reason than their grandparents to be optimistic.

    • Thank you Meditor. I agree that the student reaction to gun control is a separate issue from the economic issues at hand. For that reason, I don’t think arguing about what constitutes “a real youth reaction” is necessary in this response. I think the authors were using the example to bring attention to the potential for young people to counter the status quo as a way to point out that young people are not particularly trustful of the status quo economic system either.

  • Max Kummerow

    Quite a few are libertarians, I think, moved by the Koch/Fox/Sterling propaganda machine. But libertarian ideals–less government–just puts the oligarchy even more firmly in control, in practice. And when so-called libertarians or neo-conservatives get power their “me first” attitude tends them towards corruption and rent seeking (using government as a piggy bank). What actually seems to work well, at least in smaller, less diverse countries, are mixed economies with strong re-distribution policies (progressive wealth and income taxes) and public programs in health care and education and infrastructure to create a better workforce, more economic justice and less power for elites. Regulating mass media to provide better information to voters is crucial. And campaign finance laws that don’t allow elections to go to the highest bidder. And, additional worry, I suspect our electronic voting machines are already being hacked.

  • Heartlander11

    Unfortunately young people are naively idealistic and they should be. They are also highly impressionable – and that can be a problem. How often in their lives have they heard capitalist paired with “greedy?” Small wonder most don’t want to be associated. Capitalist in today’s media is often associated with hedge fund managers. I bet you they don’t consider Steve Jobs a capitalist. Nor the originator of Starbucks, their favorite craft brew pub, or their favorite game. Many of those interviewed (and it sounds like they were mostly college students) live remarkably comfortable lives funded – at least in the near term – on someone else’s dime. Nice apartments, cars, trips, expensive coffees, gourmet food. It is unfortunate that our education system has failed to give students a deep understanding of how the world works. I do not mean to suggest that our systems cannot be more fair and less harsh – but everyone cannot live a middle class life without someone generating sources of capital. I bet you in other surveys they want to work for Google or a “start-up” — hello capitalism.

    • I will first self-identify as a Millennial to put my response in context. Steve Jobs was certainly a capitalist, as were the founders of Starbucks, the owner of the microbrew down the road, and the makers of games are too. Google and start-ups are as well. The US is a capitalist system. Just because young people are part of that system does not deny them the ability to be dissatisfied or distrustful in it. We can identify the benefits and drawbacks of a system simultaneously. Yes, we are idealistic, but maybe idealism is exactly what is needed to bring attention to ways the current system is failing and to think of the ways it could and should be serving people better –not necessarily just ourselves.