Capitalism and Modern Youth

By Vivian Nguyen ’21

   Recent years have witnessed a shift in the minds of American youth. According to a 2016 Harvard University study, 51 percent of those 18 to 29 years old “no longer support capitalism.” Compare that result to eight years ago when Gallup polling showed only 38 percent of young adults had a “negative image of capitalism.” Following up on the Harvard study, The Conversation, a non-profit media outlet, revealed how young people feel “capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.” A majority of those polled also believed that success happened to those that “know the right people or were born into wealthy families.”

    Striving for individual gain, working hard for personal opportunities, and fulfilling ambitious dreams represent the hallmark of America — the Land Where Everything Is Possible. The story of the United States of America, arguably the most successful economic powerhouse in all of human history, is one created and stamped by the system we know as capitalism.

    Capitalism is generally termed as a market system where “trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit,” replacing the former systems of mercantilism or bartering systems of yore. The system began in about the 16th century in Europe, perhaps due in part to new systems of religious reformation based upon the values of hard work and individual sacrifice, which began to replace state-institutionalized trading ports. Max Weber, German sociologist and political scientist, famously stipulated in his novel “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” that the workings of capitalism grew, in part, to the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, an emphasized value within Protestant communities to work hard to exemplify the “fruits” yielded from strong faith.

    In the 21st century, the current free market economy birthed from this European concept of the “Protestant Work Ethic” has begun to seed itself into the fabric of Millennial existence. The “land of opportunity” and once-lax job market as well as social views on education are rapidly transforming in response to the capitalistic beast. Youth are exposed to the increasingly emphasized lure of “glory-seeking, materialism, and excessive consumerism” – the current societal obsession with production and efficiency is termed “capital identity projection,” and creates an “image of economic success [extended] to the point of one’s own detriment.”

    French sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed the term “anomic division of labor” to describe the escalation of obsession into the deterioration of moral character, and the eventual isolation from society as a whole – in favor of individual gain. Karl Marx, German philosopher and social scientist of the 19th century, once drew an analysis of capitalism in the form of the division of labor. Work, which becomes a “means to the satisfaction of other ends,” Marx said, inevitably loses inherent value when it becomes necessary to pay the rent and purchase groceries.

    A joyless and lackluster society based upon routine unfulfillment contributes to teenage suicide, as the numbers show. Suicide, the second leading cause of death for “children, adolescents, and young adults age 5-to-24-year-olds,” are linked to risk factors like feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, exposure to violence, depression, bullying, mental disorders, and family history of suicide attempts. Capitalism is just the suspect: It’s a system which rewards ruthlessly efficient workers, promotes high achievers, and brands the human and economic machine – which necessarily disadvantages the mentally ill, disabled, and depressed.

    Additionally, Weber coined the term “particular form of rationality” as yet another negative product of capitalism. He argued that the system employs full rationality imposed by elitists at the forefront of the system – that is, a rationality which parcels out predetermined ends. These are ends, Weber explained, with focuses on more profit, more money, and the idea that capital attainment equates happiness. Rationality is thus devoid of morality, and humankind is thus trapped in an “iron cage” with no escape.

    There remains little benefit for humans as cogs in the machine except for the minute elite. Many others become entrapped in mental suppression, physical exhaustion, routine lack of passion, and lastly, banality of evil. Caught up in aims of monetary “success,” one does what one believes to be right, to achieve aims, to move in hierarchy, to work faster – in a system that lacks morality and sensitivity, thus indirectly also blurring the line between evil and good. The pursuit of self interest, now rewarded by the system, seems to precede the importance of moral reflection upon the state of the world. Violence thus recreates itself, capitalism becomes the cyclical tumult, birthplace of discrimination, and death of general welfare.

    For youth, the alternative isn’t abject socialism. A 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling showed 75 percent of those 18 to 29 year olds supporting “employee-owned companies,” suggesting that they “just want to make sure [capital] shared more broadly” by the collective. As predicted, features of companies like profit sharing also proved to appeal to these American groups.

    One possible generalization from the results may be that a portion of American youth want not a direct revelation from capitalism, but instead seek to dissolve social attitudes so focused towards individual gain and social pressure. Perhaps it’s true that the best way to reform capitalism is from within, and that the free market isn’t entirely inseparable from the old theorized characteristics it’s been assigned.

    As youth attitudes begin to shift, we’ll be sure to keep an eye on exactly what socio-political movements they use to dissolve inequality within the workplace going forward.

Graphic by Marbella Trujillo ’19

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