By Bernd Debusmann
America’s millennials, the country’s biggest generation, are falling out of love with capitalism.
That is one of the most remarkable findings by Harvard University researchers who recently interviewed more than 3,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 on topics ranging from the candidates for next November’s presidential elections to the economy, the military, education, women’s equality and the judicial system.
According to the poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 51 percent of respondents said they do not support capitalism. That result was such a surprise — after all, the United States is Capitalism Central — that John Della Volpe, the institute’s polling director, held a follow-up focus group to delve deeper into the reasons for millennial disenchantment with a system once accepted without question by most Americans.
When the Harvard researchers extended their survey to other age groups, they found majority support for capitalism only among respondents over 50.
During the Cold War, “capitalism” denoted a way of life distinct from the curbs on personal freedom in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Today, the capitalism experienced by many young Americans signifies financial crisis, crippling debt from student loans, a growing rich-poor gap and greed portrayed in Hollywood movies such as “The Big Short.”
“What I learned,” said Della Volpe in a television interview, “was that it’s the capitalism that is practiced today that is untenable for young Americans. They tell me that it provides opportunities not for everybody but for a chosen few, that the chosen few know how to manipulate the system, that it leaves too many behind and that those are the main reasons why capitalism is not supported by this generation.”
The poll showed a clear shift to the left among young Americans.
Those complaints echo the campaign rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who describes himself as a democratic socialist, rails against “the billionaire class,” promises free education if he were president and says the economy is rigged against average Americans. At 74, Sanders is the oldest of the presidential candidates, but the Harvard poll and other surveys shows that he is by far the most popular among millennials.
Sanders has won 18 primary contests, but after a series of losses in April to his rival, Hillary Clinton, he has virtually no chance of becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee. Still, no matter who wins the presidency on November 8, the ideas that have fired up young Sanders supporters will survive.
Some analysts, including Della Volpe, say Sanders has influenced the way an entire generation thinks about their country.
That generation is big. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, millennials numbered 75.4 million last year, surpassing 74.9 million Baby Boomers (aged 51-69).
In the Harvard poll, sizable pluralities agreed that basic health insurance should be a right for all people, that government should provide food and shelter for those who cannot afford them and that government should do more to reduce poverty.
On each of these measures, the poll showed increases over a survey last year — a clear shift to the left.
Loss of faith in politics is “an ominous indication for the future.”
That does not mean, however, that America’s young adults support socialism. Only 33 percent of those interviewed said they favored socialism.
Instead, young adults back neither capitalism nor socialism, and are sour on politics. In what it called “an ominous indication for the future,” the poll found that just under half of millennials agree that politics is no longer able to meet the challenges facing our country.
As Harvard’s Della Volpe put it: “Young Americans are sending a strong message. They care deeply about the future but are concerned that the current state of our institutions and our politics are not sufficient to meet our nation’s challenges.”
Only 22 percent of the respondents described themselves as Republicans, a group dwarfed by self-described Democrats (40 percent) and Independents (36 percent).
For the first time in five years of polling, there were more self-identified Democrats than Independents. Overall, three quarters of the participants held unfavorable views of Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination.
What impact the views reflected in the poll will have on the presidential election remains to be seen. Only half of the respondents said they will definitely vote. In state after state, Sanders has exhorted his young followers to go to the polls. “IF you turn out, we win,” has been the refrain. In most state primaries, that has proved to be true.
Whether Sanders’s millennial followers sit out the vote in November or opt for Clinton remains to be seen.
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries (and lived in nine). He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.