Millennial Attitudes Are Out of Sync with Economic Realities

These days, young Americans are a pessimistic bunch. Earlier this month, Deloitte released its 2019 Millennial Survey, taking a snapshot of public opinion among more than 13,000 Millennials and over 3,000 Gen Z respondents in the United States and beyond.

What did Deloitte find? In a word, pessimism. As the company put it, “Optimism, trust reach troubling low levels.” In other words, young America is a “generation disturbed.”

While many factors fuel my generation’s pessimism, economic uncertainty tops the list. Nearly half of all respondents believe that the changing nature of work will make it more difficult to find or change jobs, while another 70 percent believe they may lack the skills required to thrive in the modern workplace. Meanwhile, barely one-quarter of respondents expect economic conditions in their respective countries to improve over the next year—down from 45 percent a year ago.

Given the changing labor market, much of that uncertainty is justifiable. But there’s more: Young Americans are more skeptical of the business community than ever before, with many perceiving corporate America as a problem facing our country and not a potential solution to many of its shortcomings. According to Deloitte’s research, only 55 percent of Millennials see businesses as having a positive impact on society, compared to 61 percent in 2018.

That’s right: Barely half of all Millennials see businesses as “having a positive impact on society.” Think about that for a second.

Laura Banks, a Millennial cited in the Deloitte report, put it this way: “We have less trust in employers because so many of our parents did lose their jobs, and they had been loyal to companies.”

Indeed, globalization is not an entirely positive experience. While yielding many benefits, the outsourcing of American supply chains to continents like Africa and Asia has resulted in disrupted industries, shuttered factories, and countless lost jobs.

But entirely ignoring the merits of globalization and vilifying the business community as a “negative impact” is quite a leap. In fact, to denigrate the private sector is intellectually irresponsible, considering that private enterprise is primarily responsible for the economic prosperity that we see today.

The numbers bear it out. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the totality of U.S. industry—public and private—combines to account for more than $36 trillion in gross economic output. Of those industries, the private sector alone accounts for nearly $33 trillion of that output—over 90 percent of the U.S. economy.

Economic output translates to job creation, and vice versa. As of April 2019, the private sector employed more than 128 million working Americans. The government (federal, state, and local), on the other hand, put fewer than 23 million Americans to work. These are jobs that would be impossible to finance without the productive capacity of private enterprise.

Here’s another way to look at it: In terms of job creation, the private sector is about five times more powerful than its public counterpart, which is financially dependent on the free market.

Without it, the U.S. economy would simply fall apart. Moreover, it would pale in comparison to the global competitors that have sought to replicate America’s success for decades. Despite the never-ending talk of American decline, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) accounts for roughly a quarter of the world’s GDP. In fact, America’s share of global GDP is on par with those of China, Japan, and Germany combined.

Because of its productive and innovative private sector, the U.S. economy is without precedent, and is the most prosperous economy in the history of civilization. And our economy remains the global standard, as it was for much of the 20th century.

Ironically, young Americans have a lot to do with that. After all, Millennials represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. By next year, the Millennial generation is projected to make up 50 percent of the workforce, populating all levels of the corporate ladder.

And there are plenty of reasons for Millennials—and all Americans—to be optimistic. Our economy continues to expand, hitting a robust 3.2 percent growth rate in the first quarter of 2019. The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped below four percent, and the unemployment rate for the least-skilled workers is outperforming its average to a greater extent than for higher-skilled employees.

In the last four decades, real GDP per person has increased from about $28,000 to more than $55,000, and 60 percent of today’s 30-year-olds are better off than their parents at the same age (when adjusting for family size). Upward mobility may not be guaranteed, but it is still commonplace.

And yet, young America remains pessimistic. While some of that pessimism can indeed be justified, much is totally unfounded, considering America’s socioeconomic status in the world.

Is there room to criticize the business community? Yes. Is our free-market economic system perfect? Of course not. There is always room for improvement.

But to suggest the business community has anything but a “positive impact on society”—in its totality—is to plead ignorance. Quite frankly, our business leaders deserve better.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan