Millennials, defined as those ages 18-34 in 2015, now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (ages 51-69). Many scholars have described them as “The Most Entrepreneurial Generation.”

The numbers seem to bear this out. Sixty-seven percent of millennials surveyed by Forbes in 2014 say they want to start their own business.

But other, equally accurate numbers tell a very different story. Ernst and Young (EY) reported that only 2 percent of millennials were self-employed. In other words, millennials are starting businesses at a much lower rate than any previous generation. Clearly they are not living up to their entrepreneurial reputation. This is more than a little surprising for, as a group, millennials have no shortage of resilience, grit, passion, confidence, and optimism. So what’s happening?

Millennials are an interesting group. They have been told for most of their lives by very encouraging, hyper-involved, and almost ever-present parental units that they are special, brilliant, and capable of doing or being anything. Heavily marketed to and encouraged to “follow their dreams,” they have grown up with reality TV—and often define their heroes as those who became wealthy and famous for, well, being famous. They have blurred the lines between what’s private and what’s public through social media and their highly-networked world.

This kind of upbringing cultivates a very specific strain of optimism. Unfortunately, this optimism can often fuel disillusionment. Many millennials graduate college to find themselves underemployed, employed in fields unrelated to their majors, and hopping from one uninspiring job to another. They, more than any previous generation, crave a work life that is rich, rewarding, and interesting, filled with task variety and creativity, as well as flexibility in hours, location, and benefits.

The unforgiving economic environment does them no favors. Millennials have grown up amidst the worst economic downturn in America in more than 75 years. Many of them saw their families impacted by the 2008 recession, resulting in job loss, home loss, and stagnant wages. EY data implicates financial barriers as the most significant culprit in the failure of young people to launch businesses and strike out on their own.

Millennials are also making less money and have higher debt than any previous generation. So, it is no surprise that the EY survey found that 42 percent cite a lack of financial resources as the biggest obstacle to starting a business. Much of this debt comes from student loans, with more than 53 percent of millennials reporting that they currently have—or expect to take on—student debt. High debt loads limit their access to necessary capital or credit for start-ups and their cash-strapped reality fuels their jumpiness about risky new business launches.

Since more than 67 percent of entrepreneurs rely on their personal savings to get projects off the ground, it is almost impossible to grow a successful business without some type of outside funding. The most common source is bank loans. But, if millennials already have debt and little equity or collateral, banks are reluctant to give them money.

Is anyone doing anything to change this dynamic? Yes. More and more colleges are lining up to offer assistance. Some, including NJCU, are increasingly finding ways to minimize debt for their students, offering tuition-free options (http://www.gonjcu.org/nodebt/). The Small Business Development Center at NJCU (http://www.njcu.edu/academics/university-centers/small-business-development-center) offers help with loan guarantees, consulting, and educational programs for would-be start-ups. And, NJCU’s Small Business Development Center (http://www.njcu.edu/academics/university-centers/business-development-incubator) assists young companies to commercialize their ventures and provides subsidized office space and shared administrative services. Tapping into these types of resources can help young entrepreneurs get their idea off the ground even in a tight money world.

But aren’t all the cool kids using crowd funding through social media to start their businesses instead of traditional bank loans? The answer is yes…and no.

Tune in next week to get the lowdown on this trend. Who’s doing it? Is it drying up? And, where do millennials go from here?

 

 

 Wanda L. Rutledge, Ph.D., is chair of the Management Department in the NJCU School of Business, teaching undergraduate and graduate students. An entrepreneur, sports management and sports marketing consultant, she has more than 30 years of experience as a senior global non-profit sports management executive, working on four Summer and one Winter Olympic Games and doing research on current issues and challenges facing women entrepreneurs.