Do Millennials Really Reject Capitalism?


Millennial Shoppers

“Millennials reject capitalism” is a headline made in clickthrough heaven. Though lacking context, the charge nonetheless sums up and reinforces all the grievances held against the generation by those who love to bash Gen Y. It’s the ultimate “kids these days” headline for a generation that “fought communism.” But the millennial generation has embraced consumerism like none before it, so what does that headline mean to a brand?

The headline is a result of a new Harvard University study that polled adults aged 18 to 29, and found that 51 percent of them said they “do not support capitalism.” An earlier Pew study of youth found an even split between those who supported capitalism and those who saw it as a negative force. The Harvard study did not go much deeper about these negative opinions of “capitalism.” So what does it mean?

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” said Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club. It was a movie made by a Gen X director starring Gen X actors based on a book written by a Gen X author. But millennials’ rejection of capitalism is not the Gen X rejection of capitalism. The latter was turned off by the idea that consumerism was fundamentally a ponzi scheme of human fulfillment that left everyone soulless. Gen X’s rejection of capitalism defined capitalism as consumerism.

Conversely, study after study has proven millennials to be quite at ease with the consumer existence. And whether they know it or not, millennials has been drivers of some of the most capitalistic phenomenon in the last century. Indeed, what embodies capitalism’s concept of “creative destruction” more than the disruption economies of Uber, Airbnb and food trucks? Far from rejecting capitalism, the 92 million millennials are about be capitalism as their spending is projected to increase 15% over the next five years even while baby boomer spending  falls 10%.

“There is a movement already that’s called ‘Conscious Capitalism,’” said Lisa Manley, Executive Vice President of Cone Communications. “I think it begins to address the concerns that underly the Harvard survey results.”

Last year, Cone Communications released its Millennials CSR Study. The research looked at how “millennials are universally more engaged in corporate social responsibility” and that “more than nine in 10 millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause (91% vs. 85% US average) and two-thirds use social media to engage around CSR (66% vs. 53% US average).”

“I think some young people are frustrated with the way capitalism is playing out in their lives. While the rich are getting richer, most household incomes are declining steadily. And trust in business as an enterprise continues to be low,” said Manley. “Combine this economic discontent with a growing desire for fairness, tolerance, social cohesion and democracy.”

Far from the “drop-out” reaction to capitalism embraced by the generation before it, the millennial consumer position on capitalism opens all manner of opportunity for brands. Manley says many businesses are “realizing that they can build connections with consumers when they combine the pursuit of profit with a purpose that matters to society.”  She adds, “Companies with a purpose beyond profit are earning the trust and love of people.”

Cone’s findings from last year back this up. Brands boasting strong CSR score better across the board with millennials by wide margins. This was true for both young millennials (18 to 24) and mature millennials (25 to 34). Manley says that a few core values have proven to resonate with millennial consumers:

  • It’s about brands that engage and don’t just sell.
  • Brands that lend their voice to issues that matter to society.
  • Brands that manage environmental resources wisely.
  • Brands that respect and promote human rights.
  • Brands that focus on culture and community—inside their operations, throughout their supply chains and within the communities where they operate.

These findings are hardly Cone’s alone. Goldman Sachs says this group of capitalism-rejecting millennials are far more likely to talk about a specific brand on social media. Also, millennials are twice as likely to turn to peer reviews about a brand or product.

When it comes for there to start, The Boston Consulting Group also released a recent valuable study about millennial consumers. It found that “Many companies are setting up millennial advisory boards, changing their organization structures, and creating new in-house groups to focus on millennials.”

For brands that don’t want to be capitalist without an association with “capitalism” that might be a good place to start.

Millennial Favorite Brands


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