The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Millennials are significantly more progressive than their parents

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a rally in St. Louis on March 13. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about the rise of socialism.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos. Find him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee.

The kids these days are doing fine . . . if you think socialism is fine. According to a recent YouGov poll, 43 percent of those ages 18 to 29 have a favorable view of socialism, compared with 23 percent of those over 65. Because only 26 percent of young people had an unfavorable view (the rest had no preference), respondents under 30 were the only group more likely to report a positive view of socialism than a negative view.

But this isn’t simply a youthful flirtation with supposedly radical views. Labels aside, there’s something deeper going on: An analysis of national survey data reveals that on core issues of the role of government, young people are significantly more pro-government than their parents.

Is democratic socialism the American Dream?

To explore attitudes across a wide range of areas, I turned to the American National Election Studies 2012 survey. The survey includes a set of questions that allow respondents to place themselves on a 1-to-7 scale across a range of issues, where 1 was the most progressive response and 7 the most conservative.

These differences aren’t confined to one group of millennials. Take the job guarantee question, which offers the starkest option between socialism and capitalism. Across different races, sexes, income levels and political affiliations, young people are significantly more supportive of guaranteed jobs and income than older people.

The graph below depicts the percentage of respondents who placed themselves at 1, 2, or 3 on the scale — the most supportive of government intervention. Even among groups such as Republicans that on net would oppose a job guarantee, young people are more progressive than older people.

These splits likely stem from differing views on the role government should play in everyday life. The survey questions are designed to explore respondents’ views on free markets versus government intervention. Young people are more likely to agree that “we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems” (62 percent, compared with 55 percent of those 65 and older) rather than that “the free market can handle these problems without government being involved.”

Similarly, when asked to choose between “the less the government the better” and “there are more things the government should be doing,” the majority of those age 34 and younger say the government should be doing more, while nearly two-thirds of their older counterparts say that less government is better.

For older Americans, socialism and capitalism evoke the Cold War animus between the United States and the Soviet Union. But data suggests that for young Americans, “capitalism” is a stand-in for the reckless system that created the financial crisis, while “socialism” brings to mind the social democracy practiced by Nordic countries.

How socialists from the ’60s primed millennials to Feel the Bern

The United States has always been a mixed economy, but the mix has shifted dramatically toward unbridled capitalism in the last three decades. Deregulation, privatization, financialization and austerity have all diminished the ability of government to enable truly equal opportunity in the United States.

Meanwhile, unions have been eviscerated, leaving workers with little protection from the dramatic effects of globalization. The result is a young generation saddled with debt but seeing very little opportunity for upward mobility. These shifts have harmed women and people of color the most, and unsurprisingly, young (particularly single) women and people of color are most likely to support a robust role for government intervention.

It’s tempting to think there has simply been a rehabilitation of the word “socialism,” but the ANES data suggest young people are indeed more supportive of government intervention on a variety of issues. Ironically, the elderly, who most rely on socialist (that is, government-supported) programs, are the least supportive of government intervention in the economy. But many youth yearn for the government-sponsored health care, government investment in infrastructure and government-provided higher education that their baby boomer parents were able to take advantage of in their own young adulthoods.

Whether they call it socialism or not, young people’s support for more robust government intervention will likely shape the political landscape in the future. That is, if they vote.

Explore these other perspectives:

Christine Emba: Our socialist youth: Why millennials are embracing a bad, old term

Stanley Kurtz: How socialists from the ’60s primed millennials to Feel the Bern

John Bellamy Foster: Is democratic socialism the American Dream?