Young People and Capitalism

Patricia O’Connell

What do young people really think about the tenets of capitalism? A recent survey by Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism revealed some interesting data points, and in some cases surprising ones, about Gen A and Millennials and their attitudes toward work and all the things associated with it.

Dr. Christina Elson, the John A. Allison IV Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University, spoke with This Is Capitalism Managing Editor Patricia O’Connell about a recent study. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

POC: Were you surprised by any of the data?

CE: We started this survey about a year ago. We had a previous set of data that started to show some interesting contradictions among Millennials and maybe a little less in Gen Z in their attitudes toward key tenets around the free market and free market economies but perhaps some of their attitudes toward the bigger problems that they see in our society right now.

And some of those problems could be healthcare, it could be climate. So, there’s sort of two levels of information here and what we are trying to do is pick those apart as we continue to collect more data.

POC: I think a lot of us are familiar with the 2016 Harvard study about capitalism that found that among those who were 18 to 29 – obviously now seven years older – 50 percent no longer supported capitalism. Only 42 percent said that they would back it. I found it interesting in the Center for Capitalism’s study that in each cohort there was the strongest support for competition and property.

CE: Yes, that’s correct. And there’s a couple of different things going on there. When we do surveys, we are doing nationally representative samples of millennials. So right now, the oldest Millennials are entering middle age.

If I were to ask many people “do you support capitalism?” or “what do you think of capitalism?” they may say I don’t like that concept without really having much of an understanding of what it even is.

So, the questions that we ask are more about how do you think a fair economic system should work to reward people, what are your views about the profit system in general, do you think that competition is good and does it stimulate people to develop new ideas, and questions about things like private property

POC: I would imagine if someone were teaching this, for example, you would then loop around to, “These are the tenets of free markets. So, you may think the system is bad, or you may not approve of the system but interestingly you have strong support for many of the ideas that are fundamental to it and would not be found in other economic systems.”

CE: Whether it’s business leaders or educators or whomever wants to use these data, we want to help them understand what is it that young people are struggling with – for example, concepts or with their own feelings and perspectives about how the market system, the economic system, is working for them as they age.

So, a 21-year-old is probably not going to own a house. A 40-year-old may very much like to own their own home. So, over time and with experience, these concepts become more relevant and more real in many ways.

POC: From the perspective of the business owner, what are the really useful data points from this study?

CE: There are many stereotypes about Millennials and their work habits and work views, and some of those are that they are not committed to employers, or companies, that they are looking to go to work to address social issues of some form or another.

So, the questions that we asked about what Millennials wanted from the workplace really had to do with trying to pick apart these issues. We found that millennials are focused on salary and flexibility. What they want is to work in environments that are not steeped in personal views about social issues. Now, I want to be clear that that doesn’t mean that they don’t see that there is a role for businesses in addressing social issues.

Just by the work that they do every day, many of them work to address social issues; resolve them through markets. Through the products and services they provide, they tackle all sorts of important problems in our society. The idea that you can, first of all, find a lot of enjoyment doing that in a business as an employee I think is important.

If you’re talking about social issues that may be outside of the business’s core focus, I think we have to help business leaders understand that it’s important not to create workplace cultures that are steeped in social issues. And to think about the kind of procedures that can be put in place to identify, for example, what issues are important to younger people, what are the range of views that exist about those issues, how would you think about crafting ways for employees to talk about those issues, and the appropriate role of management or leadership.

POC: How did Millennial views differ from those of Gen Z? about businesses having a role in helping to solve social issues?

CE:  In each cohort, 44 percent – less than half — thought that CEOs and businesses should play a role.

POC: I would be curious to know what employers think about this — overall, only 57 percent, so, combining gen z and millennials, believe they should be paid whatever they can negotiate from their employer. [Laughter]

CE: You do have to ask people to think about what would be most important to them in choosing a place to work because sometimes you don’t get everything that you want. Benefits are very important because of healthcare costs. So, the older you get and the more you are thinking about having a family and doing all these things, the more critical it is for you to think about flexibility, to think about healthcare benefits and other things that may not have been so important when you were younger.

POC: Particularly with Gen Z, many of them may have done gig work. That seemed to be the answer to all problems for a while. But all of a sudden they start realizing with gig work you have flexibility but no paid vacation, healthcare, 401(k) match, all these other things that you get. And with many companies offering greater flexibility after Covid, I would think it’s changing people’s attitudes about full-time employment.

CE: It just emphasizes the fact that it’s really important that employers help employees understand how work and productivity are rewarded.

Most people want to do a good job and they want to understand how their productivity is going to be rewarded and they want to have some flexibility and they want to think about what opportunities they have in the organization. Addressing social issues and having a mission is great, but it’s not a substitute for these other things.

POC: What do you think is the takeaway for educators?

CE: It’s critically important to prepare young people for the world of work, to help them understand the fundamentals of business, of capitalism, of economics, of free markets. After all, 70 percent of Americans work in private industry.

Employers also have a role to play. Nowadays many younger people come into the work world and they haven’t necessarily had a lot of prior work experience. It’s important for employers to think about where the knowledge gaps are and how they can help people continue to build their understanding of these concepts.