ELON, N.C.—John Della Volpe, who has been polling millennials for 17 years, stood before about 150 students in a gleaming new center at Elon University this fall in search of an answer.
In his 2016 survey for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 42% of younger Americans said they support capitalism, and only 19% identified themselves as capitalists. While this was a new question in his survey, the low percentage of young people embracing capitalism surprised him. He had come here, in part, to better understand why.
“Maybe it had to do with the ‘American Dream,’ and how capitalism was correlated with it, but a lot of young people don’t believe in it anymore,” said Ana Garcia, a junior at the Elon event. “We don’t trust capitalism because we don’t see ourselves getting ahead.”
Largely because of such millennials, generally those born in the 1980s and 1990s, socialism has moved from being a taboo because of its associations with the Cold War to something that has found rising appeal among those polled by Harvard and in other surveys that compared different generations.
Grace Magness, an Elon freshman, has experienced the shift firsthand. Her great grandfather, she said, was named Eugene Debs after the labor leader who ran for president five times for the Socialist Party at the turn of the 20th century. “He was so embarrassed about it when he was older that he would never introduce himself using his full name,” Ms. Magness said.
For her, she says, “socialism has gotten less spooky; it’s no longer associated with communism the way it was.” She adds: “straight-up capitalism seems like it has a lot of potential to be really corrupt.”
Young people across the generations tend to be viewed as more left-leaning than their elders. Underlying the millennial generation’s leftward tilt is angst about the future, Mr. Della Volpe said. In a new smaller Harvard survey, released Tuesday, 67% of those polled said they are more worried than hopeful about the direction of the country. The fall survey sampled 2,037 peopled aged 18 to 29 in live interviews.
“If something unites these young people,” Mr. Della Volpe said, “it’s fear,” driven by their perception that they have limited economic opportunities and that society as a whole has become more unequal.
The 2016 poll also found that the millennial generation is less religious than their parents and losing faith in institutions—a finding consistent with other polls that track some of that loss of faith to the slow recovery from the deep recession that began in 2008.
“Every new group of voters is disproportionally affected by whatever was salient when they were growing up,” said Celinda Lake, a long-time Democratic pollster. “That’s led this group to be really cynical about institutions: military, government.”
In the view of Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and the author of, “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America and How Republicans Can Keep Up,” the idea that young people tend to be liberal and become more conservative with age is misguided. “The oldest millennials are actually the most left-leaning,” she said. “If you came of age, graduated college and were job hunting around the time of the financial crisis, you might be asking, What have free markets done for you? The easy rhetoric that ‘markets are bad, government is bad’ is appealing.”
The Harvard survey has polled roughly 1,000 respondents between 18 and 29 years old annually since 2001. The sample size has grown over time. In the spring 2016 survey, it was a measure of nearly 3,200 people. The survey has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Still, millennials polled say they want a bigger role for government in making conditions better for their future. The number of young people who believe that tax cuts spark economic growth, which had held fairly steady for years, fell seven points over the past two years, according to the 2016 Harvard survey.
That may be an ominous portent for the GOP, which is on the verge of passing a major tax overhaul
that is projected to add $1 trillion to the federal deficit and cut taxes for corporations. According to the new Harvard poll released Tuesday, 67% of respondents oppose the way President Donald Trump is handling the tax measure. And a Quinnipiac University poll also released Tuesday showed that 78% of millennials, defined in the survey as 18-to-34 year-olds, believe the GOP tax overhaul would mostly benefit the wealthy.
“We are on the verge of a very significant political movement led by millennials,” Mr. Della Volpe of Harvard said. “This generation does not believe in trickle-down economics.”
Democrats may appear poised to capitalize on these trends in midterm elections next year and the presidential election in 2020. An NBC News poll of millennials released last week showed that just 19% of young people identify as Republicans and 71% don’t believe the GOP cares about people like them. By comparison, 53% said Democrats care about people like them.
But in the most recent survey for Harvard, Mr. Della Volpe asked the same question and found that just 34% of millennials believe the Democratic Party cares about them.
“Democrats can’t take these voters for granted,” Mr. Della Volpe said. “They have a year or so to focus on this generation, but if they fail to do so in the 2018 cycle, someone else will in 2020.”
Millennials also say they consider themselves socially conscious, which has ramifications for potential employers.
“They see where they work as an extension of who they are and what they value,” said Whitney Dailey, the director of marketing and research at Cone Communications, a firm that advises on corporate-responsibility strategies. “They’re looking to work with companies that align with their values.”
According to Cone’s 2016 millennial-engagement study, which surveyed more than 1,000 employees at large companies, 76% of respondents between ages 20 and 35 consider a company’s social commitment when searching for a job; 75% are willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that suits their values.
When recruiting new employees, Don Slager, chief executive of waste-management company Republic Services Inc., emphasizes diversity training for managers, a 10-hour workday for employees and investments in recycling programs.
“I think there’s more commitment and I think that is absolutely tied to the millennials because the younger generation just inherently cares more about it,” Mr. Slager said. “And I think that kind of consumerism will drive companies to make different decisions.”
Following the 2008 crash,Citigroup Inc.
changed recruitment efforts to offer a better work-life balance. These programs, including one that lets employees defer their job responsibilities for a year to do philanthropic or volunteer work and be paid 60% of their salary, arose from a recognition of the younger generation’s heightened social consciousness.
“When we go to college campuses, we tell the students we work with a purpose, that we’re trying to do good for society,” said Jamie Forese, Citigroup’s president. “And students don’t want apologies; they want a plan that’s forward looking.”