So if young people are increasingly rejecting capitalism but they’re ambivalent about socialism, what do they want?
To answer this, we need to explore what about capitalism they find so unsatisfying.
A follow-up focus group to the Harvard study concluded that many of these young people feel that “capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.” A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of those 18-34 years of age perceive strong conflicts between the rich and the poor in American society.
A majority of young people said they believe that those with means got there because “they know the right people or were born into wealthy families.”
These views on the inequality inherent in the American economic system command majorities of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, moderates and liberals. To us, this suggests the critical reason young people have lost faith in capitalism is that it has lost its ability to be fair. But they don’t seem to think an alternate system such as socialism can fix the problem.
Rather, we can begin to piece together what might work, in their view, by examining a 2015 survey by Public Policy Polling, which asked participants their views on employee-owned companies and government intervention to encourage them.
The poll found that 75 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support this, far more than every other age category, while 83 percent said employee-owned companies are as American as apple pie, hot dogs and baseball.
So these polls in a way suggest young people don’t want less capitalism, they want more of it. They just want to make sure it’s shared more broadly, such as by making it easier for more of us to become capitalists and share in the wealth we collectively create.
As two professors meeting this generation daily in our classrooms, we have been surprised by the strong support for these concepts in our college courses on economics and corporate governance.
Other surveys suggest that the desire for a more inclusive form of capitalism is becoming more widely held. A 2016 Gallup State of the American Workplace survey found that 40 percent of all American workers would leave their company to work for one that had profit-sharing.
And it’s becoming increasingly easy to do that as more companies in the U.S. embrace employee ownership in one form or another, some drawn by its ability to reduce turnoverand improve economic performance. And just last year, a company started up in Silicon Valley offering certification of employee-owned businesses “to build an employee-owned economy.”