A few days ago, I posted a dispatch from the Millennial Train Project, a cross-country voyage carting young social entrepreneurs across the American South. Throughout the journey, an impressive array of social scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators jumped on and off the train, mentoring and dispensing knowledge to the project’s participants.
Onboard the train this week, one of those expert guests, Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, told a car full of millennial listeners that her book was deliberately designed to be a “three-hour read”–a set of ideas and stories that could be read in its entirety on a cross-country flight. But that ease-of-reading experience design belies the intensive academic research she undertook: Five years interviewing hundreds of successful entrepreneurs, including the founders of LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, Paypal, JetBlue, and Dropbox–plus periods of distillation and knowledge generation, including focused writing and editing. Wilkinson missed key life events during this research period, including her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. “At that point, my mother understood, she just wanted me to finish the book.”
The former White House fellow also shared one of the biggest surprises she encountered over the course of her extensive research.
When she started her research, “I thought that I was doing a next-generation-of-leadership focus; I thought that the criteria was age specific,” Wilkinson said. But her research led her to a different place–it turns out that fewer millennials are starting businesses than the generations preceding them. “The most interesting and problematic thing I learned is that millennials aren’t starting companies the way previous generations did–all the research confirms this,” she said, pointing to research by the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation and the Brookings Institute, among others. And research that just came out this week from Kauffman only helps confirm this: for example, new entrepreneurs ages 20 to 34 fell to 24.7% last year, compared to the 34.3% of people who were in the same age demographic in 1996 when they started businesses.
There was an audible response from the group of millennial entrepreneurs and innovators on the train when she told them that their generation wasn’t as entrepreneurial as they thought it was. What? How could this be? Much discussion of their generation describes them as being more entrepreneurial and more socially conscious than any other previous generation.
Wilkinson waited for the revelation to sink in. Then she explained some reasons why some millennials might not be starting as many businesses as the older generations are. For one thing, the median average student loan debt for millennials is $28,000. For another, millennials came of age during a recession.
Data shows that 30% of the generation born between 1982 and 2003 still live with their parents. While millennials have access to a swelling number of entrepreneurship courses (there are 20 times as many of these courses today as there were in 1985), Baby Boomer parents are more likely to be entrepreneurs than their millennial children.
This should sound the alarm for all of us, Wilkinson believes, because in 10 years millennials will make up 75% of the U.S. economy.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The real criteria for success, Wilkinson noted, is found not in age-demographics but in psycho-demographics.
“You can be any age to succeed as an entrepreneur as long as you have the right mindset,” she urged the young riders.