A few years back, I followed a symposium speaker who described how today’s youth generation (Millennials) were likely to be highly entrepreneurial. Her reasoning seemed to be that big ideas and companies tend to be launched by young trendy people willing to take risks, that experiences such as the founding of Facebook show how far technology can take a young person with big ideas, and that there are so many Millennials that big things were about to happen.
I disagree. Here is a prognostication to file and look at in about 20 years: when all is said and done, history will judge Millennials as one of the LEAST entrepreneurial of the recent generations.
Why? There are some key characteristics of Millennials that lead strongly to this conclusion.
- Millennials are risk-averse. If you look at long term trends on almost any risk behavior, you will see that Millennials are on the good side of history. Drug, alcohol, and tobacco use has plummeted, crimes committed by young people have declined, teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest in decades, and college attendance is at an all-time high.
- Millennials have grown up in a world of structure and protection. This is a “comfortable” generation that largely hasn’t felt a need to act out or to fend for themselves as children. Just a generation ago Gen Xers were known as lightly-parented, latch-key kids, who as a consequence had to learn to find their own creative solutions to problems they encountered. Millennials have not had to develop these types of skills. In fact, many Millennials expect to move back in with their parents for a time post-college, and much of this boomerang mentality is from a desire to return to their parents, not just out of economic necessity.
- As Millennials have come of age, the education system has evolved in a narrow way, with an almost exclusive focus and reward structure around STEM fields. Many would say that creativity has become collateral damage along the way. This develops college graduates with incredible technical skills, but boxes them in creatively.
- Today’s employers are focusing more than ever on the care and feeding of their Millennial employees. They no longer hire gobs of college graduates and let them fight their way to the top. Rather, they have instituted career advancement and mentorship programs and seem much more willing to invest in the development of their young employees.
- Finally, Millennials seek structure and security in employment. Each year Universum conducts a college student survey which asks pending college graduates whom their ideal employer is. Just as the Millennial generation started graduating college, larger organizations, former startups that had become huge companies, and even governmental agencies started taking over the top 10. Would you believe that the #3 most desirable employer among humanities graduates is currently the US Department of State? Or that #4 is the United Nations? Or that #6 is the FBI? Incredibly, even the NSA makes the top 10.
Millennials seem perfectly formed for larger organizations that take the time truly understand them. They will desire the structure and caring these organizations can provide as it parallels the structure and caring that has surrounded them their whole lives. They will of course want to be able to express their ideas and find creative solutions to problems. What we are now seeing in large organizations is a willingness to allow them to do so.
This is not to say that in 20 years we won’t look back and see some incredible firms that were started by Millennials, as we certainly will. But, compared to their Gen X predecessors, I’ll be very surprised if this generation is characterized as entrepreneurial in a historical sense.