CEOs should note that the millennial generation is 83-million strong and the largest generation ever produced. They outnumber baby boomers by nearly 10 million. Should they be concerned that this large demographic segment that is entering the nation’s workforce takes a dim view of the nation’s market-enterprise economic system?
A Washington Post analysis of a YouGov poll taken in January revealed that overall 52% of respondents expressed a favorable view of capitalism compared to 29% for socialism. Every demographic category expressed a similar preference to some degree. Not a ringing endorsement perhaps, but a clear majority. There were just two exceptions. Democrats rated socialism and capitalism favorably in equal measure (about 42%). People younger than 30 were the only group that rated socialism more favorably (43% vs. 32% for capitalism).
Millennials live and thrive in a heavily consumer-oriented, hand-held, high-tech economy. They have access to worldly goods and creature comforts that would have dazzled a plutocrat only three decades ago. According to a UN report, the number of people living in poverty in the world compared to 20 years ago has fallen by half. In 1990, 43% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today that figure is 22%. If by most objective measures conditions have greatly improved, why do millennials embrace a philosophy that their elders have consigned to the dustbin of history?
Perhaps it’s because younger people simply don’t know that socialism means the government owning or controlling everybody’s businesses. They don’t understand that socialism means the government owns the banks, the car companies, Uber, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon. If put in those terms, many back off, saying they don’t want the government taking a managerial role over the economy, let alone nationalizing private enterprise.
In fact, a 2010 CBS/New York Times survey found that when Americans were asked to use terms like socialism, only 16% of millennials were able to define it accurately. Older Americans had a better sense of what the term means. Also, unlike older Americans, millennials did not grow up during the Cold War in which America’s adversary was a socialist-totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union.
It will not surprise business leaders that college campuses are incubators of favorable views of socialism among this generation. A 2014 Reason-Rupe survey shows evidence that support for socialism and a government-managed economy rises when millennials attend college and then recedes after they graduate. It may be a cliché that the benefits of a market-based economic system outweigh the drawbacks. But it’s a cliché that bears repeating from time to time.