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Millennials Say They Love Socialism. But Does That Change Consumer Behavior?

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No, it does not.

Millennials have a higher opinion of socialism than they do capitalism.

As you can see, overall, 52 percent expressed a favorable view of capitalism, compared with 29 percent for socialism. Republicans, those in families earning more than $100,000, and people age 65-plus had an especially high regard for capitalism compared with socialism, but respondents in almost every demographic category demonstrated the same preference to some degree.

There were just two exceptions to this pattern: Democrats rated socialism and capitalism equally positively (both at 42 percent favorability). And respondents younger than 30 were the only group that rated socialism more favorably than capitalism (43 percent vs. 32 percent, respectively).

OK, but does “socialism” mean anything to younger people? Or more accurately, what does it mean? That to me seems entirely unclear, other than as a buzzword for a society different than what we have now. That could mean policy items that is actually socialism–like socialized health care or free college tuition. But given how fast and loose Bernie Sanders uses the term–he’s not a socialist in anything more than a vague sense and basically holds the policy positions of Hubert Humphrey in a more conservative era–I don’t think there’s a lot of deep thinking going on yet about what it means to be a socialist. That’s fine really, the fact that the term actually has positive connotations with growing numbers of Americans is positive in itself.

But I think young people, including self-identified socialists, have a lot more identity tied in with individualistic consumerism than socialism, however defined. The same generation (and one presumes mostly the same people within that generation) who is embracing the term also claims they want to see fair trade products produced ethically. But they aren’t going to pay any more for those products.

The majority of millennials may not be putting their money where their mouths are when selecting chocolate, according to a Kansas State University expert in psychological sciences.

Despite strong preferences for ethical chocolate in focus groups, only 14 percent of millennials in individual choice studies selected candy with ethical or social factors labeling — such as organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, non-GMO and Fair Trade — according to a study by Michael Young, professor and head of the university’s psychological sciences department.

“For most participants, their choice behavior reflected minimal concern for ethical factors, whereas their public declarations in a focus group suggested otherwise,” Young said. “Participants who modestly preferred a candy with certain labels in our focus group may be unwilling to pay much more to obtain it.”

The study “Millennials and chocolate product ethics: Saying one thing and doing another” will be published in an upcoming issue of Food Quality and Preference. Young and his research assistant Anthony McCoy, doctoral student in psychological sciences, Albion, Michigan, evaluated answers from 80 participants in focus groups and 214 participants for the choice studies. Participants were assigned to focus groups based on ages in the millennial range — younger millennials were participants 18-25 years old and older millennials were participants 26-35 years old.

“We got the impression in the focus groups that millennials were learning in college what attitudes were popular to express regarding their food,” Young said. “But many of the older millennials confessed that they often were not making purchases consistent with those expressed attitudes due to limited financial resources.”

Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not criticizing that choice. Most of us don’t have a ton of money and that’s especially true of students. Those are reasonable choices to make given real life circumstances. However, I am pretty skeptical how many of them will be buying fair-trade chocolate in 15 years when they presumably have access to greater financial resources. When choosing between the same product with significantly different prices, how many of us consistently choose the more expensive one for any reason? Most of us do not. There is some market for this, as Whole Foods’ success shows. But it’s a primarily a consumeristic choice, not one with larger potential to transform the real inequalities of the global economic system. Moreover, it assumes that in fact that fair trade is really fair trade, even though we have no way of finding out.

To me, this story is not about the fickle nature of millennials or the use of political terminology without really thinking through it or any sort of hypocrisy. The problem is a consumer-based theory of change rather than a political-based theory of change. In other words, if you want to solve the problem of exploitation in the global chocolate industry, which is very real and horrifying, consumer movements can make a difference. But they also have limitations. Rather, as I argue in Out of Sight, we need enforceable labor standards that apply to U.S. companies no matter where they source their chocolate with very real consequences for those companies and the individuals in those companies complicit with unethical sourcing. We need meaningful inspection systems and we need to allow workers around and their advocates to be able to access the legal framework to prosecute violations. This is sort of collective solution to global inequalities that should be a central tenet of a revived socialism, one that builds international labor and consumer solidarity to hold corporations accountable for their crimes.

Unfortunately, we are a long ways from such an agenda becoming part of a broader socialism. But with the growth in socialist identification, perhaps there is room to press for deeper thinking about what such a socialism would mean and how we could apply it globally.

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