Left turn ahead: Surveying attitudes of young people towards capitalism and socialism


Economic Affairs

  • Millennials have long been portrayed as a politically disengaged and apathetic generation. In recent years, however, that portrayal has changed drastically. The rise of mass movements such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, the ‘Greta Thunberg movement’ and Momentum, together with the ‘campus culture wars’, have turned perceptions upside down. Today, Millennials are much more commonly described as a hyper-politicised generation, which embraces ‘woke’, progressive and anti-capitalist ideas. This is increasingly extended to the first cohorts of the subsequent generation, ‘Generation Z’.

  • Surveys show that there is a lot of truth in the cliché of the ‘woke socialist Millennial’. Younger people really do quite consistently express hostility to capitalism, and positive views of socialist alternatives of some sort. For example, around 40 per cent of Millennials claim to have a favourable opinion of socialism and a similar proportion agree with the statement that ‘communism could have worked if it had been better executed’.

  • For supporters of the market economy, this should be a cause for concern, but so far they have mostly chosen to ignore this phenomenon, or dismiss it with phrases such as ‘Young people have always gone through a juvenile socialist phase’ or ‘They will grow out of it’. But this is simply not borne out by the data. There are no detectable differences between the economic attitudes of people in their late teens and people in their early 40s. It is no longer true that people ‘grow out’ of socialist ideas as they get older.

  • To fill in some of the remaining gaps in the literature, the IEA has commissioned an extensive survey into the economic attitudes of Millennials and ‘Zoomers’ (i.e. Generation Z), which broadly confirms and deepens the impression we get from previous surveys. For example, 67 per cent of younger people say they would like to live in a socialist economic system.

  • Young people associate ‘socialism’ predominantly with positive terms, such as ‘workers’, ‘public’, ‘equal’ and ‘fair’. Very few associate it with ‘failure’ and virtually nobody associates it with Venezuela, the erstwhile showcase of ‘21st Century Socialism’. Capitalism, meanwhile, is predominantly associated with terms such as ‘exploitative’, ‘unfair’, ‘the rich’ and ‘corporations’.

  • 75 per cent of young people agree with the assertion that climate change is a specifically capitalist problem (as opposed to a side-effect of industrial production that would occur in any economic system). 71 per cent agree with the assertion that capitalism fuels racism. 73 per cent agree that it fuels selfishness, greed, and materialism, while a socialist system would promote solidarity, compassion and cooperation.

  • 78 per cent of young people blame capitalism (not NIMBYism and supply-side restrictions) for Britain’s housing crisis. Consequently, 78 per cent also believe that solving it requires large-scale government intervention, through measures such as rent controls and public housing.

  • 72 per cent of young people support the (re-)nationalisation of various industries such as energy, water and the railways. 72 per cent also believe that private sector involvement would put the NHS at risk.

  • 75 per cent of young people agree with the statement that ‘socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done (for example in Venezuela)’. The cliché that ‘real socialism has never been tried’ is not just a cliché: it is also the mainstream opinion among Millennials and Zoomers.

  • None of this means that Britain is full of young Marxist-Leninists. Socialist ideas are widespread, but they are also thinly spread. When presented with an anti-capitalist statement, the vast majority of young people agree with it (in our survey, this was true of every single anticapitalist statement, without exception). However, when presented with a diametrically opposed pro-capitalist statement, we often find net approval for that statement too. This suggests that when young people embrace a socialist argument, this is often not a deeply-held conviction. It may simply be the argument they are most familiar with.

  • None of our results mean that supporters of capitalism should throw in the towel, concede defeat in the battle of ideas and just accept that the future belongs to socialism. But it does suggest that they should take ‘Millennial Socialism’ far more seriously than they currently do. They should treat it as a challenge and engage with it, rather than dismiss it or deny it exists.

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Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).