Matching Youth Unemployment with Entrepreneurship

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

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 where economic growth and opportunity have long failed to keep pace with the growing number of young people entering the labor force. However, youth unemployment rates don’t have to translate into catastrophe for that generation and those it sustains. The very victims of the situation might actually benefit from it if policymakers can incentivize them to follow their dreams.  In the U.S. alone, four in ten young people ages 8 to 21 have or would like to start their own business someday.  These two statistics spell opportunity to me.

What is encouraging is that our society’s younger citizens are very well equipped to respond to the challenges we face. Throughout history, young people have been labelled by their elders as “dreamers.” But today’s under 30 generation has a new capacity by which to capitalize on their idealism, namely to use it as a natural proclivity for entrepreneurial thinking. And they are inspired to act on their ideas out of a dual motivation:  to do well and to do good. A period 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 to tackle them. Young people are inspired by others’ ability to turn their creativity, ingenuity, and tireless efforts into the invention of the products, processes and technologies that can both revolutionize the way we live and improve the quality of people’s lives. These young entrepreneurs 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 narrow commercial significance into one of substantive culture consequence that signifies the possibility of human endeavor for the benefit of all”.

Take Adam Farrell, for example, who founded a solar business when he was 15. His entrepreneurial career started as a science project in 9th grade when Farrell designed a basic solar powered house. Surprised by the costs of the photovoltaic technology his team needed, Farrell thought: “…I realized well maybe there's a market for this product…That was just the way 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 full cell that was 10 times or 20 times the size for the same price, and well just basic intuition told me to buy it for a lower price and find a way to cut her up and sell it for a lower price.” After graduating from 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).

Some more recent evidence of young people’s enthusiasm about entrepreneurship is in the new worldwide movement of young people unleashing their entrepreneurial ideas under the auspices of an intense week of entrepreneurial activity called Global Entrepreneurship Week. In the words of Carl Schramm, who conceived the idea of this initiative with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the message of Global Entrepreneurship Week is this: “I can make my own life better. I can expand my human dignity, and I can take my fellow citizens along into the future that we can create.” While Global Entrepreneurship Week features some high-profile events around the world with government leaders and celebrities, it is at its heart a grassroots global campaign hosted in 2008 by nearly 10,000 organizations in 100 countries, which planned more than 25,000 events attended by more than 3 million participants. For example, The Peace Corps in Paraguay organized 180 different activities to brainstorm entrepreneurial solutions to local problems, while a pushcart competition in Singapore encouraged young people to develop products and market them in the town square.

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 Ideas Competition combs the world for the best green innovators. Mentoring Madness, sponsored by NYSE Euronext, brings advice to aspiring bootstrap entrepreneurs. A Global Innovation Tournament challenges students around the world to compete with each other over a common global problem, and Speednetwork the Globe builds hundreds of local networks to help bring ideas to life.

By starting and expanding their businesses, teens like Adam Farrell are replacing the ideal of finding a job with a growing aspiration of creating new ones.  If we want to see that high youth unemployment rate come down, we might be well served by supporting efforts to encourage young people like Adam to explore their entrepreneurial potential, offer support and simply get out of their way. 


 

Jonathan Ortmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuses on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues.

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