Matching Youth Unemployment with Entrepreneurship
Youth unemployment rates are soaring worldwide. That rate recently reached 15% in the UK, a record 25.5% in the U.S., and much higher numbers in other countries whereeconomic growth and opportunity have long failed to keep pace with thegrowing number of young people entering the labor force. However, youthunemployment rates don’t have to translate into catastrophe for thatgeneration and those it sustains. The very victims of the situationmight actually benefit from it if policymakers can incentivize them tofollow their dreams. In the U.S. alone, four in ten youngpeople ages 8 to 21 have or would like to start their own businesssomeday. These two statistics spell opportunity to me.
What isencouraging is that our society’s younger citizens are very wellequipped to respond to the challenges we face. Throughout history,young people have been labelled by their elders as “dreamers.” Buttoday’s under 30 generation has a new capacity by which to capitalizeon their idealism, namely to use it as a natural proclivity forentrepreneurial thinking. And they are inspired to act on their ideasout of a dual motivation: to do well and to do good. Aperiod of technological advance has created a global, “new media”generation that is not only aware of the challenges facing the world,but deeply curious about the opportunities entrepreneurship offers totackle them. Young people are inspired by others’ ability to turn theircreativity, ingenuity, and tireless efforts into the invention of theproducts, processes and technologies that can both revolutionize theway we live and improve the quality of people’s lives. These youngentrepreneurs not only recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats,but that, in the words of William Green from the University of Miami,“entrepreneurship has been transformed from a subject of narrowcommercial significance into one of substantive culture consequencethat signifies the possibility of human endeavor for the benefit ofall”.
Take Adam Farrell,for example, who founded a solar business when he was 15. Hisentrepreneurial career started as a science project in 9th grade whenFarrell designed a basic solar powered house. Surprised by the costs ofthe photovoltaic technology his team needed, Farrell thought: “…Irealized well maybe there's a market for this product…That was just theway I was thinking at that time, and from there I did some research,found out who manufactured the cells, thought that I could buy a fullcell that was 10 times or 20 times the size for the same price, andwell just basic intuition told me to buy it for a lower price and finda way to cut her up and sell it for a lower price.” After graduatingfrom Cornell, Farrell expanded his business, Silicon Solar, turning it into a major R&D firm and one of the largest suppliers of solar energy technology in America (see this week’s featured profile).
Somemore recent evidence of young people’s enthusiasm aboutentrepreneurship is in the new worldwide movement of young peopleunleashing their entrepreneurial ideas under the auspices of an intenseweek of entrepreneurial activity called Global Entrepreneurship Week.In the words of Carl Schramm, who conceived the idea of this initiativewith British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the message of GlobalEntrepreneurship Week is this: “I can make my own life better. I canexpand my human dignity, and I can take my fellow citizens along intothe future that we can create.” While Global Entrepreneurship Weekfeatures some high-profile events around the world with governmentleaders and celebrities, it is at its heart a grassroots globalcampaign hosted in 2008 by nearly 10,000 organizations in 100countries, which planned more than 25,000 events attended by more than3 million participants. For example, The Peace Corps in Paraguayorganized 180 different activities to brainstorm entrepreneurialsolutions to local problems, while a pushcart competition in Singaporeencouraged young people to develop products and market them in the townsquare.
In 2009, the Week will take place during Nov. 16-22.Nations are already highlighting four activities focusing on mentoring,innovation, networking and the environment. The Global Clean Tech IdeasCompetition combs the world for the best green innovators. MentoringMadness, sponsored by NYSE Euronext, brings advice to aspiringbootstrap entrepreneurs. A Global Innovation Tournament challengesstudents around the world to compete with each other over a commonglobal problem, and Speednetwork the Globe builds hundreds of localnetworks to help bring ideas to life.
By starting and expandingtheir businesses, teens like Adam Farrell are replacing the ideal offinding a job with a growing aspiration of creating new ones. If wewant to see that high youth unemployment rate come down, we might bewell served by supporting efforts to encourage young people like Adamto explore their entrepreneurial potential, offer support and simplyget out of their way.
JonathanOrtmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuseson public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and aroundthe world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public ForumInstitute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogueon important policy issues.