There is a sea change going on among millennials and the rest of us should pay close attention to it.
The 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.
With the excesses of capitalism reaching the limits of the ability of a society to maintain a stable relationship among individuals, the new generation appears to be changing its mind about what constitutes a ‘good life’. Increasingly they are resisting the idea that capitalism is the only way to organize a fair and equitable society. And they have a point.
Modern society now seems to be structured so as to make the rich richer and deliver the middle class into servitude. The trends since the Reagan years are so well established that only through a severe and persistent exercise of self-deception could any reasonable person avoid seeing them.
The Rise of the Uber Class: Corporations are now people – but a strange sort of people. In the old days if a person committed a crime you hauled them before the court and subjected them to penalties under the law. But that is not the case with these uber-people. Now a group of people, in the name of a corporation, commit what is clearly a crime and what happens? They are bailed out. The government actually forces the human people to pay the bill for the crimes. Additionally the corporation can take the results of the surpluses generated by the workers and deploy them against the interests of the very people who generated the surplus. Free speech is now defined as a theft of those surpluses and their use against the very people who generated them. The uber-citizen now controls not only the economy but the government.
Destruction of the Idea of Equal Before the Law: These millennials have come to realize that there are two legal systems – one for the very rich and another for everybody else. They see it as an inevitable result of the capitalist system. The jails fill up with people who have committed relatively minor crimes while those who almost brought down the world financial system not only keep their jobs and privileges but collect bonuses for talking advantage of the system and draining the treasury.
Servitude from Study: Those seeking an education find themselves buried under mountains of debt and entering a job market that does not allow them to repay it. Many millennials look at the prospect and turn away. They see it as a ‘bad deal’. Their future has been stolen by the uber-citizens with the help of the very government that is supposed to represent them.
But most importantly, young people are questioning the dominant definition of capitalism.
“The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to,” said Zach Lustbader, a senior at Harvard involved in conducting the poll, which was published Monday. For those who grew up during the Cold War, capitalism meant freedom from the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes. For those who grew up more recently, capitalism has meant a financial crisis from which the global economy still hasn’t completely recovered.
In an important way, the millennials are returning to the basic American values that the current form of capitalism has worked so hard to destroy. They read about how things were before. The efforts of the Franklin Roosevelt administration to pull the country out of the great depression. The positive impact of the rise of labor unions on the economy and the welfare of workers. They look back on a time when the dominant idea was a government of, by and for the people and are horrified at what has happened to their country.
John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard, went on to personally interview a small group of young people about their attitudes toward capitalism to try to learn more. They told him that capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.
“They’re not rejecting the concept,” Della Volpe said. “The way in which capitalism is practiced today, in the minds of young people — that’s what they’re rejecting.”
But there is something else going on that is just as important as the growing dissatisfaction with capitalism among the millennials. They are starting to question the idea of what constitutes a good life.
Millennials are watching their parents and grandparents consume the patrimony that historically has been passed on to future generation. They watch the equity in their parent’s homes being sucked away by reverse mortgages and see that the program is now to spend every last dime and then die. The perversion of the American dream is so obscene that they feel little connection to a past that will leave them with nothing but debt and limited opportunities. And they wonder why they should follow the example of those who have thrown away the fundamental advantages that this country brought to its people.
And searching for acceptance, they gave it all way. Only the children of their children know the price they had to pay.
And the children of their children are the millennials. And they are both pissed and dismayed. The rise of populism is a direct result of this increasing dissatisfaction with capitalism as it presently operates in the US. The rise of Bernie Sanders is a clear reflection of that. Even the faux populism of Donald Trump can be connected to that dissatisfaction. It is worth noting that the last ‘establishment’ candidate standing is a Democrat and that increasingly Wall Street and the very wealthy are deciding that she is preferable to populism.
Millennials are the canary in the coal mine. They are telling us something about the future of the United States and of capitalism as its defining economic system. We are fast approaching a time – if we are not there already – when the leadership of both political parties will be ignored as lackeys of the wealthy and special interests. We are fast approaching a time of revolution. The torch will not be passed to a new generation. It will be wrenched from the hands of those who seek to perpetuate a system that millennials see as rigged and fundamentally un-American.
I am a political and social theorist with a PhD from Strathclyde University in Glasgow Scotland and a Masters from The Sloan School at MIT. My most recent book is Envisioning, Wandering Outside the Boxes: a speculation on the process of political and sociological theorizing as it is currently practiced, and to some extent on how it has been historically practiced,. It is available in paperback and Amazon Kindle.