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Young Americans aren’t as woke as you may believe

They continue to believe in the capitalist verities of competition, individual responsibility, and earned success beneath a left-leaning façade.

In this age of pig-wrestling polarization, one of the few things that red and blue Americans can agree on is that the young have shifted strongly to the left — not simply in the sense of the natural generosity (or naivete) of youth, but in a more substantial and philosophical shift towards statism.  40% of younger Americans favored socialism to capitalism.

This belief in a leftward youthquake has had significant consequences.

Republican operatives argue that the young are a lost cause, so they embrace grumpy old men. (Audiences on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” appear to be in a stage of advanced physical decomposition.) Their Democratic equivalents defend their economic and cultural shift to the left by claiming to be following future voters. CEOs defend their increasingly progressive practices by claiming that businesses must recruit and keep younger employees.

It’s simple to see how this belief has become rooted. Many young people are clearly dissatisfied with the way the world works. Their rage occasionally manifests itself in praise of “socialism.”

With their shrill certainty, woke activists set the tone of institutions and major corporations. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both from the left, have a significant audience among young people.

However, a new study of young Americans conducted by Wake Forest University’s (gloriously-named) Center for the Study of Capitalism should give us pause. YouGov contacted a demographically representative sample of 1,999 people aged 18 to 40 and divided them into three age groups: elder Gen-Zs (18-24), younger millennials (25-31) and older millennials (35-40).

All of the normal caveats apply to the survey: Polling results are influenced by the questions asked, and people frequently have contradicting beliefs.

The results, at the very least, demonstrate that young people’s attitudes are not fixed in stone. Their attitudes on capitalism are influenced by politicians’ willingness to woo them and the economy’s ability to provide them with opportunities.

Younger Americans continue to believe in the holy trinity of competitiveness, individual responsibility, and earned achievement, according to the study: Only 9% of younger millennials disagree with the statement that “competition is good” and “stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas.”

While this may appear to be a banal position, majorities also support more controversial proposals.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to make as much money as you honestly can.

“People who overcome all competitors on the road to success are models for young people to admire,” nearly half agree. In a 2019 Cato Institute poll, 73% of younger millennials agreed or were neutral on the idea that “people should be allowed to keep what they produce, even if there are others with greater needs,” just slightly less than the 78% of all Americans who felt the same. For elder Gen Zs and millennials, the numbers are similar.

Majorities are skeptical of the type of government activism seen in Europe, and oppose the notion that the government should be fully responsible for healthcare.

When asked how they think responsibility for post-secondary education should be divided between individuals, businesses, and government, they say individuals should have half, businesses 11%, and government 38%. When asked the same question concerning retirement, they feel that individuals carry 43% of the obligation, businesses 18%, and government 38%. Not quite Ayn Rand, but certainly not socialist.

That isn’t to imply that young Americans aren’t frustrated with their lot. Only 66% of under-40s think that “when I get what I want, it’s usually because I worked hard for it,” compared to 78% of all Americans who responded in the 2019 Cato study. In their current occupations, 47% of older Gen Zs (excluding students) expect to earn less than $25,000 per year.

Entrepreneurial faith is deteriorating as well. Nearly half of all people under the age of 40 disagree that “people at the top deserve their high position.” More younger millennials (41%) say Elon Musk’s success is due to “advantage” rather than hard work (38%). (LeBron James does considerably better, with 62% choosing “earned” and 10% choosing “advantage.”)

However, this is due to current system faults rather than a shift in values. There is no doubt that younger people are being treated unfairly: Prior to the epidemic, older millennials had 11% less wealth than previous generations at the same age, and younger millennials had 50% less.

Nevertheless, when it comes to solving their problems, they continue to place their trust in institutional competition rather than government involvement. They are convinced that significant swathes of the US economy (particularly health insurance, social media, and mobile phone networks) lack sufficient competition. (They don’t have the same concerns about retail, entertainment, taxi services, hotels, or, oddly, airlines, given the poor service provided by established corporations.)

Older millennials are more likely to blame a lack of competition for America’s healthcare problems, a belief that would baffle British millennials of the same age.

There’s also evidence that the old saying is true: if you’re not a socialist when you’re young, you’ve got no heart and if you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you’ve got no head. People are becoming more conservative as their resources and responsibilities grow. Only 20% of older millennials described themselves as “very liberal,” compared to 26% of older Gen Zs. They were also more likely than earlier Gen Zs to see religion as “very important” in their life.

What are the consequences of all of this? The most obvious is that younger Americans resemble elder Americans far more than we generally believe. They are neither the woolly-minded virtue signallers of Republican demonology nor the progressive cadres of AOC’s illusions. They are instinctively more wary of government than their European cousins.

The second point is that politicians who focus on improving access to the current system rather than demanding fundamental change will find plenty of young fish to catch. This isn’t to say that America’s structural inequities originate from its long history of racial oppression and exclusion should be overlooked. But it does include rejecting both the radical left’s group-rights politics and the Tucker Carlson right’s ressentiment.

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