Farrell: Turbulent times may drive a surge in entrepreneurship

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • Updated: September 24, 2012 - 5:03 PM

The long-term decline in entrepreneurship in the nation is among the most disturbing trends in today's economy. Americans admire business risk-takers, from medical device visionaries to local chefs with their own restaurant.

Yet, the entrepreneurial landscape has shrunk in an era that's witnessed the rise of Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot and other highly efficient competitors. For example, the U.S. created fewer start-ups that employed at least one worker in 2007 than in 1990, after adjusting for population growth, calculates Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western University. That trend has worsened during the downturn.

My own suspicion is that entrepreneurship is about to enjoy a resurgence. One reason is the rise of locally based artisan businesses in communities in the Twin Cities, Minnesota and elsewhere. A growing number of local businesses are finding being an artisan offers a competitive edge.

For another, we've all learned over the past five turbulent years that we need to focus on constructing our own personal safety net. The conversation usually revolves around saving more and borrowing less -- a sound strategy. But I think many people -- especially the younger generation of adults -- realize there's another way to shore up the household balance sheet: Back-pocket jobs geared toward the DIY mindset of the post-meltdown era. Instead of relying on the Holy Grail of employment -- a good-paying job with full benefits -- workers are building their own "Plan B" by becoming microentrepreneurs on the side. Small side ventures give people a small measure of control over their fate in an increasingly uncertain economy, as well as a creative outlet.

Another factor that I think will propel greater entrepreneurship is the aging of the baby boom generation. The share of new business formation by 55- to 64-year-olds is up sharply over the past 15 years -- from 14.3 percent in 1996 to 20.9 percent in 2011, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, 1996-2011. Of course, there are both negative and positive forces behind the embrace of entrepreneurship among older workers. Some have lost jobs and decided their best bet is to put out their own shingle.

Whatever drives people to consider striking out on their own, the good news is there are plenty of resources available for research. The most valuable resource to tap is other entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs are generous with their knowledge and experience. They want new small business owners to do well.  

Federal, state and local governments back a number of programs. Many are partnerships with other organizations, such as industry groups, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations. For example, the Small Business Administration backs SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Volunteers with the nonprofit association act as mentors and counselors to new small business owners.

Owning your business isn't for everyone, of course. Yet in thinking about managing jobs and careers over a lifetime it seems worthwhile to learn more about entrepreneurship. I also think the research should be part of any retirement plan since many of us will work well into the traditional retirement years. Starting your own business is one option to consider.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

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