Last December, the Pew Research Center released a poll in which it attempted to gauge American perceptions of capitalism and socialism. Here’s what it found, broken down by age group:
The generational differences reflected in those numbers are stark. Americans aged 18-29 are deeply ambivalent about capitalism, while a slight plurality is supportive of socialism. Their grandparents, on the other hand, offer a mirror-image reversal, reporting an overwhelmingly negative view of socialism and a generally positive attitude toward capitalism.
There are many ways to interpret numbers like that, the most obvious being the Churchillian observation that people tend to grow more conservative as they get older. There’s no doubt some truth to that, in part because as people get older, they acquire more wealth and want to protect it. Like older Russians who mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union, older Americans also become emotionally invested in the system in which they’ve lived all their lives.
However, I suspect there’s also something deeper at work in those poll numbers, something that reflects the different historical experience of the age groups in question. And that difference will influence public policy debates in this country in profound ways over the next three decades.
Today, younger Americans have no cultural memory of the Cold War, an era in which American capitalism was in existential conflict with Soviet communism and its softer, more rational cousin, socialism. Unlike older Americans, they were not raised in a world that divided itself along that particular fault line. Framed in a more conservative way, younger Americans have little direct, first-hand experience with socialism. They are, you might say, naive about its drawbacks.
The dividing line between those worlds would of course be 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed. Today, Americans who are 40 or younger have lived all of their adult lives in a world in which communism was no longer a grave threat to capitalism. And that’s important, because the basic insight of capitalism — competition is good because it drives people and organizations to do better — applies to political ideologies just as well as it applies to football teams or individuals.
In this case, as long as communism existed as a realistic alternative, capitalism and its defenders had to mute its harsher aspects to make it more appealing. They had to “deliver the goods” of a broad middle class, with a division of the economic pie that would be judged by both insiders and outsiders as fair and just. Otherwise, they would be handing ammunition to their ideological enemies, who depicted capitalism as a brutish, winner-take-all system.
But after 1989, with its competitor vanquished, capitalism in effect began to exert its monopoly power. It became rougher, less paternal and more aggressive. If income for the already wealthy soared while the pay of working class Americans stagnated or even declined, well, too bad. It was justified as Darwinian justice, a form of justice much different from the concept of economic justice that had been in effect prior to 1989.
Today, when younger Americans think of capitalism, this is the system that comes to mind. Their parents and grandparents experienced it as a system that produces great prosperity; in their own lives, they have seen capitalism produce something much less appealing. The fact that the collapse of 2008 was driven largely by Wall Street excess, and that most of those who engaged in that excess have escaped serious consequence, only compounds the image problem.
I’m not trying to argue that we’re now entering some kind of post-capitalist era, because whatever its disadvantages, capitalism still beats every other system known to man. But it will have to be a form of capitalism that fits the needs of its time, and it will be molded by generations that have different expectations and understandings. Capitalism is not a static concept; it must live by its own rules, which means that it will adapt or it will fall.
– Jay Bookman