Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs
It’s a cliché that young people are all a bunch of idealistic lefties. But, as with most clichés, there’s more than a grain of truth to the stereotype.
According to new polling commissioned by the Institute of Economic Affairs, over two thirds of young people (those aged 16 to 34) say they would like to live in a socialist economic system, and 75 per cent say they agree with the statement that “socialism is a good idea”.
On the face of it, for those of us who favour a free market economy – or value the fact that we don’t yet live in a socialist command-and-control economy – these figures are alarming.
Does this mean that we could soon face left-wing governments ad infinitum? Is the legacy of Corbynism still very much alive and kicking?
Young people certainly have a perception of socialism as something that is harmless, fluffy and, crucially, a viable – and preferable – alternative to capitalism.
As the survey finds, millennials and Generation Z associate the ideology predominantly with positive-sounding terms, such as “workers”, “public”, “equal” and “fair”, whereas they associate capitalism with terms such as “exploitative”, “unfair”, “the rich” and “corporations”.
It would appear, therefore, that the attraction to socialism is, by and large, an issue of perception rather than of any strongly held conviction.
The survey data supports this and shows that while anti-capitalist, pro-socialist attitudes may be widespread, they are also thinly spread. When presented with an anti-capitalist statement, the vast majority agree with it – for example, 78 per cent of young people blame capitalism for Britain’s housing crisis. However, when presented with a diametrically opposed pro-capitalist statement, the survey often found net approval for that statement too.
The very fact that there are young people who can agree with mutually exclusive statements suggests that support for socialist arguments is to an extent – if not largely – superficial.
Shockingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, only five per cent were able to associate socialism with Venezuela. One could reasonably conclude, therefore, that a fundamental lack of historical knowledge and understanding of how left-wing ideology plays out in practice is more than contributing to this belief that socialism would be preferable to the status quo.
In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that left-wing arguments have become the default position for so many young people in this country. It’s no secret that our education system – schooling and higher education – is influenced, if not dominated, by left-wing thinking.
This is not to say that young people have been purposefully indoctrinated – at least in the main. Rather, left-wing views are spread by a process of osmosis: if anti-capitalist views are consistently presented in a positive light, as being high-status, caring and humanitarian, it’s perfectly foreseeable that young people will internalise these attitudes.
Coupled with the increasingly prevalent attitude that a person’s political views dictate their moral value, we’re now in a situation where many young people appear unable to tolerate alternative viewpoints altogether – disagreement is often seen as the equivalent to personal criticism or invasion of their “safe space”.
This is no exaggeration. A new survey by pollster Dr Frank Luntz confirms what many knew to be true anecdotally: 53 per cent have ended a friendship because of political opinions. Those au fait with generation Z, at least on social media, will know that cancel culture is openly encouraged. To some it is seen as noble to cancel relatives or friends who hold views that are deemed “unacceptable”.
Much like how St Augustine wrote in his memoirs “Oh Lord make me chaste – but not yet”, it seems many young socialist Brits are able to talk the talk but are not quite ready to walk the walk. It is, of course, far easier to espouse anti-capitalist views than to disengage with all that the market economy has to offer. And with the likes of Meghan and Harry as role models, they’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the words and not the deeds.
When it comes to assessing real life policies, young people are also perhaps a little less socialist than they let on. According to survey data by Redfield & Wilton, when asked how the government should seek to balance the public finances, support for cutting spending is actually highest among young people: 60 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 51 per cent of 25-34 year olds believe this should be prioritised over tax increases. Not exactly what you’d expect from those committed to left-wing economics.
Add this to the fact that the upcoming generations are some of the most entrepreneurial in history and the water muddies further. Far from the image of lazy and entitled millennials, many studies have revealed that the majority of young people actively want to start businesses and be their own boss.
For this reason, it’s clear all hope is not lost. Some young people may look to the likes of self-proclaimed “communist” Ash Sarkar or social justice warrior stroke actress Emily Ratajowski as political icons, but their actions and priorities show a far more complex relationship with capitalism.
For years the adage that “If you’re not a socialist before you’re 25, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 25, you have no head” has led to a complacency that socialists will grow out of it as soon as they reach a level of responsibility. The data no longer shows this to be the case.
Negative feeling towards capitalism is only going to strengthen unless young people feel they are being served by “the system”. While it may be over-regulation, NIMBYism, and poor immigration planning that are to blame for the lack of affordable homes, young people think capitalism is at fault. It makes logical sense that if millennials and Gen Z-ers, even with professional jobs, have no real capital or assets, they’ll continue to reject capitalism.
An increasing number of young people feel badly let down by the higher education system, with over 45 per cent of recent graduates last year working in non-graduate roles. Coupled with stagnant wages, and a cultural obsession with left-wing social justice issues, it’s no wonder that so many have romanticised an ideology that promises equality and fairness.
Young people may post infographics on their social media accounts about inequality and how billionaires are to blame for all our ills, but they’re also a generation that celebrates entrepreneurialism and success. In order to turn the tide, we’ve got to think big. Fix the housing crisis, the higher education system and tackle our common enemy: statist crony capitalism.