Gallup recently shared the results of their annual poll on entrepreneurial ambition among American students. In the prior five years of polling, 33% to 35% of high school students indicated that they planned to start their own business. This year that number dropped to a lowly 27%. This drop would not necessarily be noteworthy, if not for the unending emphasis that educators, economists, and politicians have placed on the importance of cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in the next generation.
The focus on entrepreneurship is well placed. We have entered a period of technological advancement that is unprecedented in the history of humankind, and it is accelerating at an exponential pace. Within the next few decades, it is predicted that half of the jobs on earth will become obsolete, and many futurists believe that we will hit technological singularity. Most young people are not going to have the luxury of getting a degree or learning a trade, and settling into a job for the duration of their adult life. They are going to be forced to constantly evaluate their skillset and their place in the world, acquire new skills as necessary, and create opportunities that allow them to provide value to others in a rapidly evolving marketplace. In the past, an entrepreneurial mindset was a lifeline for those who could not stand to work for others, but in the future, it will become a necessity to survive.
While the interest in entrepreneurship among high school students hit a low, Gallup pointed out that a majority (55%) of middle school students plan to start their own business. Gallup suggested that the 2:1 ratio in entrepreneurial ambition between the groups may be a result of goals changing with age, although that would not explain the widening gap between the two groups. Gallup also posited that familiarity may result in decreased interest in entrepreneurship among students. On that point, Gallup is part wrong, part right.
Gallup is part wrong because there is evidence that being introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age increases, rather than decreases the likelihood that one becomes an entrepreneur. This is particularly the case for children of entrepreneurs, who are two to three times more likely to become entrepreneurs than their peers who were not raised in entrepreneurial households. Therefore, the phenomenon of student interest in entrepreneurship decreasing as academic entrepreneurial offerings increase needs to be scrutinized.
Gallup is part right because the wrong type of familiarity breeds contempt. Gallup points out that high school students were twice as likely as middle school students to have access to classes on entrepreneurship. In line with the counterintuitive reality of education, the more that learning experiences are formalized into curriculum, tested, and graded, the less likely it is that students will want to engage in that experience once class has ended. If you want to crush the entrepreneurial spirit in students, force them to take an entrepreneurship class.
Furthermore, schooling, with or without entrepreneurship classes, impedes an entrepreneurial orientation in students because it produces a risk averse mindset. By virtue of high school students having on average four more years of schooling than middle school students, they are less likely to be able to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty of an entrepreneurial existence.
As opposed to Gallup’s misguided proposals for more academic offerings, schools should immediately drop entrepreneurship classes, entrepreneur workshops, and startup fairs if they are interested in fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in their students. Instead, schools need to step aside and allow students to engage in self-directed learning experiences in real world contexts so that young people can experience the challenges and joys of entrepreneurship in a low risk setting.
2. For example, Thomas Frey has claimed that 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030.
3. Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045 (Futurism)
4. Like Father, Like Son? (Entrepreneur)