HBR | Why Today’s Teens Are More Entrepreneurial than Their Parents

HBR | Why Today’s Teens Are More Entrepreneurial than Their Parents

2017-08-18T13:19:39+00:00 June 20th, 2015|Harvard Business Review|

MAY15_25_85409071_vertMy teenage daughter is going to Korea for two weeks this summer. Which meant she needed to earn nearly $3,000. So she decided to become an entrepreneur, and started a baking business that is financing her trip to Korea — one $5 loaf of hot, homemade bread, and $12 fresh-out-of-the-oven pan of cinnamon rolls at a time.

This is different from the work my husband and I did as teens; I worked as a cashier at a Burger Pit in San Jose, Calif., and my husband worked on a pick-your-own berry farm in southern Maryland. But among my daughter’s peers, becoming an entrepreneur appears to be the rule, not the exception.

The abysmal job market for teens is forcing many of them to think differently about work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the teen employment rate from 1950-2000 hovered around 45%, but since then has steadily declined. As of 2011, only 26% of teens were employed. Certainly the reasons for this decline are multifaceted, from a struggling economy, to competition with older workers, to time conflicts, to the fact that many teens just don’t want traditional “teen jobs.”

A quick poll of my peers revealed that about 60% of them had traditional “teen” jobs; flipping burgers, waiting tables, and the catchall “office work” — typing, filing, and reception. But when I asked what their children do to earn money, only 12% of them had jobs that I would describe as traditional teen jobs. A whopping 70% had jobs that are best described as self-employed; ranging from owner/operator of Diva Day Care to selling on eBay to teaching piano lessons. Today’s teens are getting a completely different work experience than I did – and it’s better preparing them to be innovators.

The media is playing an important role in this shift. Shows like “Shark Tank,” featuring young entrepreneurs, and local and national media covering feel good stories about successful teens have changed the way our youth view work. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, 8 out of 10 kids want to be their own boss, and 4 out of 10 want to start their own business.

There’s also a groundswell of support from parents and adults, generally. I saw this with my daughter’s business. Our friends and neighbors could just as easily have bought their bread and cinnamon rolls at the grocery store, but when they saw that my daughter was willing to get up at 5AM on Saturday to make fresh baked bread they were inclined to support her.

In addition to the ho-hum job market, and changing cultural zeitgeist, technology is changing where, when and how early we begin to work. Take, for example, Calum Brannan, a British teen who started PPLParty.com, a social networking site for clubbers, 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, an Australian app developer who sold his company Summly, that summarizes the news, to Yahoo for $30 million. Or Adora Svitak, an American writer, speaker and advocate who was introduced to the world at the age of six and whose 2010 TED talk “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” has over 3 million views. For these teens, the expanse of their network is not limited to their physical location. Because of technology, their “lemonade stand” can be on any street corner of any city in the world.

And don’t forget the competitive college admissions market. In order to get into the best colleges, teens must differentiate themselves. This means excelling academically as well as participating in evening and weekend extracurriculars. Not only does this leave little time for the kind of work their parents did after school, those part-time jobs to most admissions committees simply aren’t impressive enough. It is no longer sufficient to be civic-minded by showing up for a town cleanup, you need to organize the cleanup and run it for several years. You can’t tell the college that you love journalism and then only write 2-3 articles for the school paper. You need to write dozens of articles and then publish them in multiple sources. Or better yet, start your own newspaper – online. The need to be different is forcing them to innovate and diversify in ways that previous generations never did.

This unique confluence of circumstances – a tough economy, increasingly competitive college market, expanding networks and shifts in technology – is creating a culture of innovators. Needing to, and having the opportunity to, shape themselves into something quite different than their parents, the rising generation instinctively understands personal disruption. Some people call post-millennials Generation Z, but I think a more appropriate moniker would be Generation (I)nnovation.

The article was co-authored with Roger Johnson, who holds a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University, and is former Assistant Professor at UMass Medical School. He is the lead parent of our bread-baking, headed-to-Korea, daughter.