The prognosis was dark, the response fast and furious. “People our age have never experienced American prosperity in our adult lives — which is why so many millennials are embracing Democratic socialism,” wrote journalist Charlotte Alter, sharing her Time profile of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. Her reformulation of the congresswoman’s words quickly became a flashpoint online.
Point: The economy’s booming. Millennials are lazy, vain things that pay up for Instagrammable experiences and anything avocado. They live in their parents’ basements because they can’t be bothered to pay rent, or a mortgage. Counterpoint (offered by AOC and crew): Millennials are destitute because they’ve been screwed by the Boomers. They’re strangled by the high cost of education and health care, and by an uneven economic recovery. Business is roaring, but only a select few enjoy its fruits.
Which do you think resonates more with young Americans? Defenders of free markets could win this debate on the merits. Unemployment is down, and GDP growth last year was around 3 percent, the precise number depending on which measure you prefer to use. Yet anyone paying attention knows that Millennials aren’t buying it. Their skepticism of capitalism is now common knowledge.
At least partly because of this, some business leaders, such as Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio, are hedging their bets. Absent significant reforms to capitalism, “some form of revolution” might be around the corner. Is that wrong? A seemingly endless series of polls would appear to show growing support for socialism (and declining support for capitalism) among the Millennial generation and the similarly liberal college students and teenagers who compose Generation Z. In 2020, these two cohorts will account for 37 percent of the voting-age population.
However, polls that suggest growing Millennial support for socialism seem to generate more alarm than the truth would warrant. Take, for instance, an Axios survey that found in January that 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 51 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds had a positive reaction to socialism. While this result indicates the dissipation of a taboo on the use of that label, 58 percent of both cohorts also viewed capitalism in a favorable light. Along similar lines, an Axios/Harris Survey in February showed that 49.6 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers would prefer to live in a socialist country — much lower than the 73.2 percent and the 67.1 percent, who, respectively, support universal health care and free college tuition.
This presents a mixed bag. There is stronger support for expanding government programs than for “socialism,” which might just be another buzzword for progressive policies anyway. And as striking as high levels of support for those policies may be, it’s not unreasonable to predict that survey questions framed in terms of their cost could significantly lower those numbers. Still, the general Millennial preference for these proposals cannot just be wished away.
The conservative response has largely been to say something about Venezuela or the Soviet Union. Although this is, again, correct on the merits, anyone who has talked socialism with a left-wing college student knows to expect a familiar rejoinder: Venezuela and the USSR don’t represent true socialism, and instead we should look to Sweden and Denmark. The more daring might even counter that Stalinism was bad but capitalism has its own body count, as author Mike Davis claimed in a Jacobin interview last October.
So if socialism to Millennials is Denmark, not Venezuela, “the right answer is not that Denmark is hell — it is not hell — but the right answer is that in fact for Denmark to work, the whole original socialist model had to be reformed in a way that empowered entrepreneurship,” argued the economist Edward Glaeser during a lecture last year. To boot, these Millennials, he said, are awfully confident that we’d resemble Sweden more than we would Greece. Disabusing them of these misconceptions is a logical first step.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the general Millennial dissatisfaction with current economic conditions. As Michael Hobbes has noted at HuffPost, studies link higher unemployment with notably lower starting salaries; members of the class of 2009 could expect to earn close to $60,000 less over ten years than those who graduated before the financial crisis. Ocasio-Cortez, Boston University ’11, speaks for the generation that ventured into the job market during the recession. Recovery be damned, that leaves an im-pression near impossible to erase from the political consciousness of that generation, which maybe explains the nearly tenfold increase in membership that the Democratic Socialists of America have enjoyed over the past three years.
Interestingly, dissatisfaction with the status quo hasn’t benefited the DSA only; it’s also put wind in the sails of Millennial advocates of urban development. CityLab called 2018 “the Year of the YIMBY,” referring to pro-development activists who push their local officials to approve zoning deregulation in hopes of increasing the supply of housing and therefore lowering rents. Minneapolis became the movement’s first success when its city council voted to eliminate single-family zoning in December. Progressive supporters touted the plan’s potential to fight racism, climate change, and economic inequality — but that shouldn’t obscure a clear victory for free markets.
The national conversation about Millennials and capitalism surrounds the big-ticket items that we hear about all the time. However, Millennials also care strongly about pocketbook expenses and everyday conveniences, something that proponents of capitalism would be well advised to exploit. If Amazon stifles competition and mistreats its workers, you wouldn’t know it based on Gen Z and Millennial spending habits. According to one survey, 77 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds would give up alcohol if they had to choose between that and an Amazon subscription. A litany of scandals appears incapable of putting an end to Uber’s popularity with Millennials. And although teens might describe the owners of Chick-fil-A as homophobic, the fast-food chain toppled Starbucks as their favorite restaurant across all levels of income last year.
The disconnect between that urban-Millennial libertarian impulse and the generation’s leftist inclinations offers a tantalizing opportunity. Leaders willing to go to bat for the gig economy might reap political rewards. That said, Gen Z might be even more socially progressive than the Millennials. Gen Zers show up at the march, shift consumer preferences to match their values (even if that’s not always true), and view politics in terms of justice. To them, for instance, climate change isn’t just an existential threat to the planet; it’s also a source of racial and economic inequality.
The Green New Deal pledges — among many other things — a new social contract to roll back these injustices. It also throws into relief the trade-off between free markets, on the one hand, and significant government action to restrict carbon emissions in the United States, on the other. Generation Z might get on board with the latter option, perhaps without really considering the alternatives. And that is in part because few alternatives existed until Republican members of Congress had to start rebutting arguments for the GND, even as young voters across both parties were significantly more likely than older ones to consider climate change a problem. Failure on the right to coalesce around market-friendly solutions — such as a version of Lamar Alexander’s “New Manhattan Project” or even the carbon-dividends plan endorsed by thousands of economists — might just push young voters toward the GND by default.
More than political necessity, though, the moral case for capitalism must take center stage. Teenagers coming of age in today’s political climate know only an ascendant socialist Left and a conservative movement increasingly influenced by skeptics of free markets, such as Tucker Carlson, who see many of capitalism’s proponents as obsequious worshipers of free markets. It has become clear that capitalism needs defenders from the left and the right, especially given that three in ten Republican 18- to 24-year-olds hold a positive view of socialism. The critics provide food for thought and ideas for reform. But what remains practically ignored in today’s politics is the most essential argument of all, that free-market capitalism has drastically improved the standard of living, especially for the poor.
And so, even as Millennials see themselves rowing against the current with Gatsbyesque futility, they might still be receptive to a message that favors capitalism. Gen Z, maybe more so. An episode from another Fitzgerald novel, This Side of Paradise, shows why. Toward the end of the book, disaffected protagonist Amory Blaine expounds on the virtues of socialism during a brief car-ride-turned-debate with a capitalist. Probed about the sincerity of his views, he admits, “Until I talked to you I hadn’t thought seriously about it. I wasn’t sure of half of what I said.”
Responding again to his interlocutor, he continues, “I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation — every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals.”
The argument for capitalism is not lost as long as young voters are still forming their views. They can be persuaded, but not if they are written off.
This article appears as “The Lost Generations? ” in the May 20, 2019, print edition of National Review.