Should we really be surprised that young people are rejecting the economic status quo?
Imagine that you’re twenty years old. You were born in 1996. You were five years old on 9/11. For as long as you can remember, the United States has been at war.
When you are twelve, in 2008, the global economy collapses. After years of bluster and bravado from President George W. Bush — who encouraged consumerism as a response to terror — it seems your country was weaker than you thought. In America, the bottom falls out fast. The adults who take care of you struggle to take care of themselves. Perhaps your parent loses a job. Perhaps your family loses its home.
In 2009, politicians claim the recession is over, but your hardship is not. Wages are stagnant or falling. The costs of health care, child care, and tuition continue to rise exponentially. Full-time jobs turn into contract positions while benefits are slashed. Middle-class jobs are replaced with low-paying service work. The expectations of American life your parents had when you were born — that a “long boom” will bring about unparalleled prosperity — crumble away.
Baby boomers tell you there is a way out: a college education has always been the key to a good job. But that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. The college graduates you know are drowning in student debt, working for minimum wage, or toiling in unpaid internships. Prestigious jobs are increasingly clustered in cities where rent has tripled or quadrupled in a decade’s time. You cannot afford to move, and you cannot afford to stay. Outside these cities, newly abandoned malls join long abandoned factories. You inhabit a landscape of ruin. There is nothing left for you.
Every now and then, people revolt. When you are fifteen, Occupy Wall Street captivates the nation’s attention, drawing attention to corporate greed and lost opportunity. Within a year, the movement fades, and its members do things like set up “boutique activist consultancies.” When you are seventeen, the Fight for 15 workers movement manages to make higher minimum wage a mainstream proposition, but the solutions politicians pose are incremental. No one seems to grasp the urgency of the crisis. Even President Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat — the type of politician who’s supposed to understand poverty — declares that the economy has recovered.
You wonder when the economic recovery will reach your family. You have been wondering for eight years.
In 2016, pundits declare your hardship an aberration: unemployment is a low 4.7 percent! At first you think it’s a mistake, until you realize the government counts everyone working part-time or gig jobs or making salaries below the poverty line as “employed.” That is what employment looks like in America. It is not personal fulfillment or a path to a future. It is futility — and it is forever. Survival is the new American Dream.
Is it any wonder over half of 18- to 29-year-olds in America say they do not support capitalism?
According to an April 2016 Harvard University poll, support for capitalism is at a historic low. 51 percent of Americans in this age cohort reject it, while 42 percent support it. 33 percent say they support socialism. The Harvard poll echoes a 2012 Pew survey, in which 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive view of capitalism, and 47 percent a negative one. While older generations had a slightly more positive take on capitalism — topping out at 52 percent for the oldest cohort, citizens over 65 — youth had a markedly different take on socialism. 49 percent viewed it positively, compared to just 13 percent of those 65 or older.
Does this mean that the youth of America are getting ready to hand over private property to the state and round up the kulaks? No. As many of those who reported on the Harvard survey noted, the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” were never defined. After meeting with survey takers, John Della Volpe, the director of the Harvard poll, told the Washington Post that respondents did not reject capitalism inherently as a concept. “The way in which capitalism is practiced today, in the minds of young people — that’s what they’re rejecting,” he said.
Capitalism, in other words, holds less appeal in an era when the invisible hand feels like a death grip. Americans under 20 have had little to no adult experience in a pre-Great Recession economy. Things older generations took for granted — promotions, wages that grow over time, a 40-hour work week, unions, benefits, pensions, mutual loyalty between employers and employees — are increasingly rare.
As a consequence, these basic tenets of American work life, won by labor movements in the early half of the twentieth century, are now deemed “radical.” In this context, Bernie Sanders, whose policies echo those of New Deal Democrats, can be deemed a “socialist” leading a “revolution”. His platform seems revolutionary only because American work life has become so corrupt, and the pursuit of basic stability so insurmountable, that modest ambitions — a salary that covers your bills, the ability to own a home or go to college without enormous debt — are now fantasies or luxuries.
Policies like a $15 per hour minimum wage — brought to mainstream attention not by Sanders, but by striking fast food workers years before — are not radical, but a pragmatic corrective to decades of wage depreciation. The minimum wage, which peaked in 1968, would have reached $21.72 in 2012 had it kept pace with inflation. Expectations of American life are formed on the premise that self-sufficiency is possible, but nearly half of Americans do not have $400 to their name. The gap between the rhetoric of “economic recovery” and “low unemployment” and the reality of how most Americans live is what makes Sanders seem unconventional: he describes widespread economic hardship many leaders rationalize or deny. Voters are not only rejecting the status quo, but how the status quo is depicted by media and politicians — the illusion that the economy is strong, and that suffering is the exception, not the rule.
We live in an era where heated rhetorical battles are fought over terms that have lost clear meaning. In an attempt to placate an angry populace, all three major candidates — Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton — have at various times positioned themselves as “anti-establishment”: a dubious description of two career politicians and a billionaire tycoon. “Neoliberal” has gone from a term that describes an advocate of specific economic and political policies to an insult hurled indiscriminately on social media. Thanks to Trump, the word “fascist” has reentered the American political vocabulary, with some playing down Trump’s brutal and unlawful policies on the grounds that they do not precisely emulate foreign fascist leaders of the past. Meanwhile, Trump castigates Clinton for not using the term “radical Islam.” This sparring over labels illustrates the depths of our ideological confusion.
It is in this rhetorical morass that the debate over whether young Americans support “socialism” or “capitalism” takes place. Omitted from most coverage of the Harvard poll was the fact that youth were asked not only about socialism and capitalism but four other categories. “Which of the following, if any, do you support?” the questionnaire inquired, giving the options of socialism, capitalism, progressivism, patriotism, feminism, and social justice activism. None of the terms were defined. Respondents could choose more than one. “Socialism,” at 33 percent, actually received the lowest support. “Patriotism” received the highest support, at 57 percent, while the three remaining categories were each supported by roughly half the respondents.
What do these category-based questions really tell us, then, about the allegiance of youth to ideologies? Nothing. The real answers are found in questions about policies. When asked whether they support the idea that “Basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them,” 47 percent of all respondents said “yes.” Does this indicate support for socialism? Not necessarily. It indicates that respondents grew up in an America where a large number of their countrymen have struggled to afford food and shelter — and they want the suffering to stop.
You do not need a survey to ascertain the plight of American youth. You can look at their bank accounts, at the jobs they have, at the jobs their parents have lost, at the debt they hold, at the opportunities they covet but are denied. You do not need jargon or ideology to form a case against the status quo. The clearest indictment of the status quo is the status quo itself.