20 Jun Emboldening Young American Entrepreneurship
In today’s economy, there are 23 million American youth who have not found a meaningful place in the workforce—meaning they are not finding work, not finding enough work, or have become discouraged from seeking work altogether. Much of the focus on fixing this problem has been placed on boosting the ailing economy through improved government investment and leadership. But what if part of the problem lies in the fact that while the labor market has changed significantly, our methods of preparing young adults for entry into it have not?
Equipping individuals with tools to flourish in the current labor market depends on more than just traditional teaching and training means; it requires talking about success, and how to achieve it, in more open-minded and entrepreneurial ways. In the new economy, “you can do anything you want to do in life” does not necessarily always need to be followed by “if you just work hard, get good grades and go to college.”
Please don’t get me wrong; I am not speaking out against academia, or the value of demonstrating diligence. I strongly believe my own experiences in higher education helped to expand not only my realm of career opportunity, but also my understanding of how the world operates. With this understanding, though, I acknowledge that college is not always the best or most attainable option for everyone, and that we need to start talking differently about what that means in a pragmatic sense.
Even if we improve access to college and reduce its costs, not all youth learn best in a lecture setting. There may be great innovations happening in the way colleges teach, yes, but I still think we need to be open to providing other options for personal and professional growth . . . and to be comfortable with promoting alternate, viable pathways to flexible and unique careers. This includes broadening access to, and availability of, diverse training, skills building, and apprenticeship programs, but I also think it calls for growing our emphasis on the benefits and possibilities of entrepreneurship.
Historically, those who have been most successful have pushed the boundaries of convention (Henry Ford, Bill Gates, the list goes on). Not everyone who tries their idea will flourish, but clinging to convention will not help our economy grow either. Individual prosperity needs to start with enabling youth to identify and build upon their passions in a variety of ways, not just on one rigid track, and to do so with confidence. And it is worth noting that a number of successful business creators (Steve Jobs and Richard Branson among them) did not even receive college degrees; while their cases may have been exceptional, there undoubtedly must have been shared characteristics in both attitude and opportunity that helped them achieve their success.
America’s continued economic growth depends on new thinking and innovation as much as it does on government-led job creation. Students need to be provided early on with the encouragement, support, and resources they need to strategically identify their skills and desires, and to brainstorm ways, if the drive exists, to grow their goals into viable careers. Boosting entrepreneurship means encouraging creativity and risk, but also increasing support for career exploration, both in terms of community encouragement and financial investment in programs designed to increase business skills and entrepreneurial savvy.
The Economist estimates that there are presently 290 million young adults worldwide not participating in the labor force—unable or unmotivated to engage in any form of employment, education or training. When governments fail to adequately employ youth, there are indeed numerous social and economic consequences. While I don’t think increasing entrepreneurship will necessarily solve all of these problems, or absolve the need for higher education, structured training, and effective career programs, I do think it is an area of education and opportunity that is currently being underutilized.
Not only does successful entrepreneurship bring new ideas to the market, it has immense capacity to create new jobs, thus increasing America’s overall economic strength. Interestingly enough, one of the arguments for immigration is that immigrants have historically made great entrepreneurs; according to the study American Made: The Impact of Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Professionals on U.S. Competitiveness, “Over the past 15 years, immigrants have started 25 percent of U.S. public companies that were venture-backed, a high percentage of the most innovative companies in America.” Which is wonderful—but also begs the question: why? What has contributed to their success? And why aren’t more Americans born and educated in the United States willing to take similar risks? These are the questions that we should be exploring in assessing how to improve the health and ambition of our economy and the actions of the individuals who drive it.
Granted, entrepreneurship is not the smartest option for all, and not all new jobs can be filled by enterprising youth, or even by the products of those who do boldly stake out to create something of their own, or something new. Indeed, many small businesses and ventures fail, and a number of young adults struggle to even find what it is they are really passionate about. But we do need to highlight a number of options, entrepreneurship and innovation being key ones, and to encourage individuals to explore these options with confidence and excitement, rather than with fear and uncertainty. Doing so will not only help fuel American economic competitiveness, but will also provide greater opportunities and job satisfaction to our nation’s eager, capable youth.