America / Economy / Politics / Trade

Millennials Like Free Trade but Don’t Like Capitalism



In the coming election cycle, millennials will surpass baby boomers as the largest voting bloc in the United States. For this reason, pundits, pollsters, and political parties are trying to figure what millennials support and what millennials oppose.

A new Pew Research Center survey reveals that one issue millennials support is free trade. In the past year, the proposed trade shake-ups presented by the Trump Administration have revitalized the national debate on longstanding free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  It is very likely that trade policy will be an important factor for voters in 2018 and 2020.

On a grander scale, the coming election cycles will certainly feature a debate on the future of the United States economic system. The surge of millennial support that Bernie Sanders–a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist–received in the 2016 Democratic primary has led some to believe the political views of millennials are shifting drastically to the left.

Conflating the ideology of millennials with the generation’s preferred 2016 presidential candidate is misguided. Instead, greater insight can be provided by analyzing the millennial view on a specific issue like free trade–an issue that may reveal more about the millennial attitude towards our economic system.


In November, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 69% of 18-29 year olds view NAFTA as good for the United States, while only 15% view it as bad for the country.  As shown in the table below, millennials have the most favorable view of NAFTA compared to all other age demographics.

Age Group Good for U.S. Bad for U.S.
18-29 69% 15%
30-49 58% 31%
50-64 50% 42%
65+ 48% 42%

Source: Pew Research Center

Of the four age groups, millennials are the least divided demographic when it comes to their view on NAFTA.  With such a skewed favorability towards the United States’ most important free trade agreement, one would expect that millennials are the country’s biggest proponents of the benefits of the free market economy, right?

Not exactly.

According to a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll, 51% of 18-29 year olds said they oppose capitalism, while 42% said they support it.  Furthermore, only 19% of millennials said they identify as a ‘Capitalist’.

At the same time, socialism isn’t the preferred economic system of millennials either.  In the same Harvard poll, 59% of millennials said they oppose socialism, while only 33% said they support it.  Furthermore, just 16% said they identify as a ‘Socialist’.

Past surveys have found that millennials have a greater affection for socialism than the Harvard poll. A 2015 Reason-Rupe survey found that 53% of 18-29 year olds view socialism favorably; and a 2016 YouGov survey found that 43% of respondents younger than 30 had a favorable opinion of socialism.

Additionally, millennials are the generation that is least likely to identify with a political party. At least 41% of millennials identify as independent according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll.


The true breakdown of the political affiliation of millennials is objectively unclear. However, the polling data does tell us that millennials appear to support free trade, but disprove of capitalism. These views contradict.

Capitalism is understood as “An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”

Likewise, free trade understood as “International trade left to its natural course without tariffs, quotas, or other restrictions.”

Based off of these understandings, free trade is a principle component of a capitalist economic and political system.  So if millennials support free trade, shouldn’t they also support capitalism?

Pollsters from the Harvard survey noted that their results were difficult to interpret, because the word ‘capitalism’ can represent different themes for different people.  Undoubtedly, not all people’s view of capitalism is in line with the traditional understanding of the system.

For example, for an 18-29 year old who grew up during the financial crisis, the term ‘capitalism’ could easily be conflated with ‘crony capitalism.’  Therefore, in a poll where the question is simply whether or not one “supports” capitalism, it is understandable that certain millennials may not immediately think about free markets and trade.

The political and economic labels that some millennials adhere to do not provide conclusive insight into their views on issues. Millennials tend to view such labels negatively and generally avoid them.


Analyzing what millennials support and what they oppose is much more complicated than their perceived understanding of economic systems or the political candidates they have supported in the past. For example, the preferred 2016 presidential candidate of millennials, Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, but he is also opposed to free trade deals that millennials overwhelmingly support.

The best indicators for what millennials believe in are their views on issues, not the labels some may adhere to.

The Pew Research survey shows evidence of the fact that millennials strongly support free trade–a core principle of a capitalist system­–more so than any other age demographic in the United States.

In the United States today, the current wave of protectionism and nationalism is concerning to many who believe in the capitalist principle of free trade. The possibility of the United States withdrawing from NAFTA is a very real one. A withdrawal would be catastrophic to the United States economy, and could lead to 1.8 million American workers losing their jobs in the first year.

In coming election cycles, if millennials hold steadfast in their beliefs that free trade deals like NAFTA are positive for the United States, then they may be the last best hope for free trade capitalism in America, whether they know it or not.

One thought on “Millennials Like Free Trade but Don’t Like Capitalism

  1. Any study done on the opinions of the Millenials post Trump’s nomination is bogus. They will state the our against ANYTHING that Trump supports. Beyond that, the don’t have the reasoning capacity anymore to have a valid opinion.

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