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Millennials Don’t Know What "Socialism" Means

To learn more about millennials, check out Reason-Rupe's new report.

Young people don’t know what socialism is.

Recent polls have suggested that millennials are far more positive to socialism than older cohorts. For instance, the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of 18-29 year olds had a positive reaction to the word socialism, compared to 33 percent of 30-49 year olds, 23 percent of 50-64 year olds, and 14% of 65+. The older you get the more you hate socialism.

But do young people even know what socialism means?

Perhaps not. A new Reason-Rupe report on millennials finds that young people are more favorable to the word “socialism” than a government-managed economy, even though the latter is less interventionist. Millennials don’t like government intervention in the economy when you spell it out precisely, rather than use vague terms like “socialism.”

In fact, a 2010 CBS/New York Times survey found that when Americans were asked to use their own words to define the word “socialism” millennials were the least able to do so. According to the survey, only 16 percent of millennials could define socialism as government ownership, or some variation thereof. In contrast, 30 percent of Americans over 30 could do the same (and 57% of tea partiers, incidentally).

Millennials simply don't know that socialism means the government owning everybody’s businesses. They don’t understand that socialism means the government owns the banks, the car companies, Uber, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc. They don’t even want the government taking a managerial role over the economy, let alone nationalizing private enterprise.

In fact, millennial support for a government-managed economy (32%) mirrors national favorability toward the word socialism (31%). Millennial preferences may not be so different from older generations once terms are defined.

Millennials’ preferred economic system becomes more pronounced when it is described precisely. Fully 64 percent favor a free market economy over an economy managed by the government (32%), whereas 52 percent favor capitalism over socialism (42%). Language about capitalism and socialism is vague, and using these terms assumes knowledge millennials may not have acquired.

Millennials didn’t grow up during the Cold War in which the national enemy was a socialist totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union.  Since this time, the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” may have taken on different meaning in the minds of millennials. For instance, socialism could imply protecting the vulnerable from the vicissitudes of capitalism, and capitalism could mean government favoritism instead of a free market.

Furthermore, critics of the president keep calling Obama a socialist. Millennials like Obama,  (52% still approve of him) and thus perhaps the critics’ constant barrage of socialist name-calling has bolstered millennials’ opinion of the word, rather than tainted Obama’s image.

Support for Socialism Peaks in College

There is evidence that support for socialism and a government-managed economy rises when millennials attend college and then recedes after they graduate.

College students are evenly divided between socialism (49%) and capitalism (48%). Conversely, millennials who are not currently in college favor capitalism to socialism 55 to 38 percent. (College graduates are similar to other non-students in support for capitalism). College campuses appear to be a incubator for socialist views.

Download the PDFTo learn more about millennials, check out Reason-Rupe's new report.

Photo Credit: Millennials

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  • ThinkAgain||

    Government ownership of the economy is only one form of socialism, the people can own economic structures directly in collectives or co-ops. People could also desire an economy where there was greater public ownership of companies but not government control of the market, as in market socialism.

    Socialism is a broad concept and "what is socialism?" would be a very good college essay question rather than quick survey response. Perhaps the young see things in broader terms and struggle to find the snappy reductions of the old and the tea partyists.

  • liam.lah||

    My thoughts exactly, you are likely to have had people describe the more classical definition of socialism, and according to this poll, they would 'not have known what socialism is'.

  • Mr. Raven||

    Thanks for saving me a post, I was about to make the same point, that classical socialism is worker ownership or control of their tools, period, full stop. Now one can make an argument that if that leads to collective decision making leading to undue interference the market that it will fail due to the calculation problem, but technically in political science terms this author also "doesn't understand socialism" by assuming that all socialism is either Fabian "democratic" socialism or Leninist tyranny.

  • woodNfish||

    The USA is a socialist country, why should they know something different than what they grew up in?

  • John_Engelman||

    I would describe the U.S. economy as "casino capitalism," in which the odds favor the house.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "They don’t understand that socialism means the government owns the banks, the car companies, Uber, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc. "

    "Socialism", like other words, has a meaning determined by language usage. For most self identified Socialists in the West, it simply does not mean "government ownership of the means of production".

    They're a confused lot, but self described Socialists tend to be for redistributionist state and free minds. Relatively open society welfare statists. Prefereble to the Progressive Theocrats who want to control your wallet and your mind.

    Outside the West, I'm sure you get more of the old school "government ownership of the means of production".

  • The Shmeckler||

    The author draws some incredibly bold conclusions from such a tiny hint of data. My guess is that he is devoid of intellectual integrity, and plagued by confirmation bias. Right wing America doesn't care much for compelling evidence or facts, and they really do enjoy shitting on millennials. Those who have inherited the most dramatic expresion of all of the ills that the economic system they've been cheerleading for this past century is capable of conjuring from the very beginning of their adult lives.

  • John_Engelman||

    I will not criticize the author's integrity. Nevertheless, like most on the right he does not seem to understand that the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union no longer serves as a horrible example of socialism.

  • LLizard||

    "... the Soviet Union no longer serves as a horrible example of socialism."

    Venezuela has obligingly picked up the mantle.

  • John_Engelman||

    The word and ideal of socialism existed early enough for Karl Marx to condemn several varieties in The Communist Manifesto, which was first published in 1848.

    Democratic socialism exists nowhere. The closest approximation to democratic socialism that exists is Social Democracy. That does exist in Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Commonwealth. By criteria I value that works better than what we have in the United States.

    Until the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, no one with national name recognition has advocated socialism since the death of Michael Harrington in 1989. Consequently, the fact that a large minority of Americans, and a plurality of millennials favor socialism is significant.

    When millennials say they favor socialism the majority probably mean little more than, "I do not like capitalism." The reason should be easy to find. Many got college degrees, even in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics, and could only find jobs that require nothing more than a high school degree. Many have watched their parents lose well paying jobs, and have to take jobs paying much less, with little or nothing in benefits.

    Émile Durkheim said, “Socialism is not a science, a sociology in miniature: it is a cry of pain.”

    If the median income adjusted for inflation continues to decline, while the rich keep getting richer, that cry will become more insistent.

  • Henry Baker||

    "College campuses appear to be a incubator for socialist views."

    Appear to be? That's ridiculous. College campuses have been cesspools of socialism and communism ever since the 1960s.

    Nobody under 30 should be allowed within five miles of a voting place under penalty of DEATH!

  • Mr. Raven||

    Muh freedom!