Millennials were once portrayed as an apathetic generation. In the late 1990s, when the first millennials came of age, the Guardian writer Polly Toynbee described them as "airheads and know-nothings."
Over the past five or six years, however, the way this generation (those born between 1981 and 1996) is viewed has changed drastically. The rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and Momentum, and the way "woke" campus culture has spread to the corporate world and beyond, have turned perceptions upside down. Today, millennials are typically seen as an intensely politicised generation, and specifically as a generation which embraces radical Left-wing ideas. This is increasingly being extended to the first cohorts of the subsequent generation, "Generation Z" or the "Zoomers".
For more than a year, large parts of "normal" economic life have been suspended , and our "normal" economic policy debates have been suspended with it. The Covid economy is neither truly capitalist nor socialist; it is an ad-hoc emergency arrangement akin to a wartime economy. But as we return to normality, the pre-Covid ideological battles are going to return with a vengeance. Which makes it a good time to ask: how much truth is there to the stereotype of the "woke socialist millennial"? Is communist activist Ash Sarkar really "the voice of a generation", as her publisher from Bloomsbury puts it? Or are we mistaking the loudest voices for the most typical ones?
To look at the issue in a more systematic way, the Institute of Economic Affairs commissioned polling on the subject. My report "Left turn ahead?" sets out the findings, along with a summary of the evidence we already have from previous surveys.
It turns out that there is a lot of truth to the stereotype of the woke socialist millennial/Zoomer. The overwhelming majority of young people really do express stridently anti-capitalist views across a broad range of issues. Seventy to 80 per cent believe that capitalism fuels climate change, racism, greed, materialism, and runaway housing costs. Similar proportions support nationalisations and rent controls. Young people associate "capitalism" primarily with exploitation, unfairness, corporations, and the rich, while associating "socialism" primarily with terms such as "workers", "equal", "public", "fair", "communal", and, yes, "Jeremy Corbyn" (no, this is not over).
Virtually nobody associates socialism with the erstwhile showcase of "21st century socialism", Venezuela . On the contrary, 75 per cent agree with the statement that "socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done (for example in Venezuela)" – the old cliché that "real" socialism has "never been tried".
None of this means that Britain is full of committed young Marxist-Leninists. We included several pro-capitalist statements on the same subjects as a control, and found that, while anti-capitalist statements always receive very high levels of approval, the pro-capitalist statements sometimes receive majority approval too. Large numbers of people simultaneously agree with an anti-capitalist and a pro-capitalist statement on the same subject, apparently without noticing the contradiction. This suggests that while socialist ideas are widespread, they are also thinly spread. For most young people, these are not necessarily deeply held convictions. Approval of socialist positions may often reflect familiarity: people express agreement with those arguments, because they're au fait with them. Anti-capitalism has become a "default opinion" which comes naturally to young people.
So all is not lost. Nonetheless, those of us who believe that capitalism is a lot better than its reputation, and socialism is massively overrated, need to recognise that there is a problem here.
One of the main findings from my report is that it is no longer true that young people "grow out" of socialism as they get older, in the way some previous generations did. Socialist ideas are just as popular among people in their early 40s as among people in their late teens, or if anything, slightly more so. This is not a fleeting effect, and it will not go away on its own. The case for capitalism has to be made anew, and won anew.
Dr Kristian Niemietz is head of political economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs
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