Though I was no fan of Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s, one thing she understood was that people needed to believe capitalism was THEIR system. So, she set out to give people a stake in the system. Today, in sharp contrast, millennials seem to have almost no stake whatsoever in capitalism. And guess where that leads? Yep, disaffection with the aforementioned capitalism.
Thatcher wanted to end the ‘mixed’ economy of post-war Britain. That’s where the state owned vast swathes of the economy including energy, telecoms, utilities and transport. She presented the sale of state assets as something liberating, a chance for the public to own a slice of the economy. Some people would have said that they already did through state ownership. But Thatcher wanted people to have shares – and believe in financial capitalism.
The Wider Share Ownership Council was set up to “create a nation of well-informed capitalists, enfranchised in the economic life of the country and supportive of a free-market system”. It didn’t matter that as industries were privatised, wealth inequality actually grew despite the increasing number of shareholders. And many held the shares more like Premium Bonds than equities. They didn’t go on to develop sophisticated stock market portfolios as Thatcher might have hoped. But many Britons bought into the myth of ‘popular capitalism’. And I suppose that’s all that mattered.
I was a financial journalist in the 1990s and people in the City privately mocked or pitied those members of the public who did try to play the markets. Lambs to the slaughter was the usual analogy. At the end of the so-called ‘dot-com boom’ around 2001, there was a 90% club of shareholders who had lost that percentage on the average share in their portfolio. Same thing happened in 2007/8. Private investors got fried every time. Institutional investors bailed out way before.
Millennials and post-millennials don’t tend to have share portfolios – not the ones I know anyway – and neither have they bought their own council house. Because those were sold decades ago in another of Thatcher’s popular capitalism moves. And many can’t afford or don’t want to take out a mortgage. Even if they tried, they’d probably be turned down. So no stake for millennials in the property or equity market.
And now, post-Covid, many millennials have a further reduced stake in capitalism on account of having no job. Young people who thought being a gym trainer or working in the ever expanding hospitality sector was a career for life have been cruelly disabused. Some have even resorted to back-breaking labour on farms to make ends meet.
And pity the poor ‘strategist’ or ‘creative’ – who now finds capitalism doesn’t need their strategic insight or creative flair. In recent years, I’ve met so many people claiming to be strategists that I call myself a ‘tactician’ with pride.
The dream, or nightmare, or myth of popular capitalism has definitely crashed and burned. There is no 1980s privatisation giveaway. There’s no keys to your own home. And now it’s a P45 and good luck for the future. So when I hear some people wondering why capitalism is in the dock – well ask yourself: what stake do millennials have in the system? And then the answer should be clear to you.