Free Enterprise Hasn’t Failed Gen Z—Its Messaging Has

Young people aren’t really into capitalism anymore. Perhaps that’s not a surprise to you, but now we have data to prove it. In a new Axios poll, over half of 18-24-year-old Gen Z respondents were definitively unhappy with the free market system.

But it wasn’t always this way. Only two years ago, nearly 60 percent of 18-34-year-olds viewed capitalism positively. So why has America’s youth increasingly turned on capitalism at such high rates? It’s complicated, but it can be boiled down to one glaring issue: Free marketeers are clueless as to how they should market themselves to people my age.

Gen Z is arguably the most socially-conscious generation alive, and they want their economic system to align with how they feel regarding social issues. In fact, according to polling, lifting people out of poverty and feeding the poor is more important to Gen Z than economic development.

To the young person, the free market isn’t the way to do that. And who can blame Gen Z for believing free markets and economic growth don’t help the poor? In our lives, narratives regarding social issues like climate change and economic inequality frame free markets as the problem—not the solution. This narrative is a significant problem for the future of free enterprise in this country. If free market advocates can’t change this narrative soon, we’re all in trouble.

But for free market advocates, this isn’t the time to give up. It’s a time to double-down, and think about how to present free market ideology to my particularly humanitarian generation.

Fortunately, it won’t be too hard. The free enterprise system is actually the best way to address social problems. For example, by every metric, the free market is the most extraordinary anti-poverty program in human history. In fact, due to the spread of free market institutions, extreme world poverty decreased by 80 percent from 1970-2010. As Harvard professor and author Arthur Brooks put it, the reduction of extreme world poverty is “the greatest achievement in human history, and you never hear about it.” A study in 2014 confirmed Dr. Brook’s point finding that over 80 percent of Americans didn’t believe global poverty had been drastically reduced over the past thirty years. Rather, two-thirds of the respondents from the same study believed global poverty had been on the rise.

This has to be fixed. If the ideas of capitalism have a shot at remaining, reducing the lack of knowledge—especially among the youth—regarding the net positive free enterprise has brought to people across the globe is a necessity. However, reducing the lack of knowledge regarding capitalism does not rest on the shoulders of the youth but on the shoulders of free market advocates who have previously failed to spread this message to younger generations.

Instead of throwing out impersonal statistics having to do with GDP or per capita income, free market advocates should protect capitalism’s future prospects by entering conversations—with younger generations who view free markets negatively—with compassion. Telling the story of capitalism’s success in lifting billions of people out of poverty is one place to start. Sharing personal stories of economic mobility works too, but no matter what, free market advocates need to find a way to engage with younger generations by speaking the language of empathy and compassion. If free market advocates do that, my generation and future generations might rethink their priors. And that’s good news for everyone.

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Cooper Conway

Cooper Conway is a Young Voices contributor and a Frank Church Scholar at the Boise State University Honors College. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1.

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