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3 Paradoxes Of The ‘Entrepreneurial Generation’

by Dr. Jeff Cornwall

There is little doubt that America needs a strong dose of entrepreneurial activity to jumpstart the economy. But unlike past recessions, we are not seeing a significant number of entrepreneurs who view the downturn as an opportune time to start a new business. There seems to be a growing concern that the American culture has lost its entrepreneurial fire.

As a professor of entrepreneurship, I have closely watched the Millennial Generation as they have entered the workforce over the past decade.

Some have labeled this generation as the “Entrepreneurial Generation.” As they have entered college, we have seen significant growth in entrepreneurship programs across the country. Over the past decade we have seen significant growth in university entrepreneurship programs and robust growth in enrollment in entrepreneurship courses.

Surveys have suggested that 40% to 50% of Millennials want to have entrepreneurship as part of their careers. They seek the independence that being an entrepreneur offers them, and they have an idealism that can serve them well in their entrepreneurial journeys.

However, even though this generation seems poised to provide an entrepreneurial spark to the economy, I am beginning to have doubts if this will actually come to pass. I am wondering if we should be calling this generation the “Paradoxical Generation.”

There are three paradoxes about this generation that lead me to wonder if they are really going to be the entrepreneurial economic saviors that many have been predicting.

Paradox 1.

Although the Millennials  profess a desire to become entrepreneurs, I am increasingly convinced that they are not ready for the risk that comes with owning a business. Risk-taking requires a real understanding of failure. Those who do not comprehend the downside of a decision – which can include failure – tend to take unnecessary risks.

The Millennials have been insulated from failure and have never really experienced true independence. It has become almost cliché that this generation has grown up in a time when everyone gets a trophy. They have helicopter parents ready to swoop in to rescue them if they face the slightest adversity.

We try to address this lack of experience with failure with the students we have the opportunity to work with in programs like ours at Belmont University.  We have had some success. However, the Millennials have been so bubble-wrapped and protected from failure that it is difficult to help them understand the true nature of risk-taking.

Paradox 2.

This generation wants to live the good life that their parents have achieved, and they want it now.  And yet, when you look at the businesses being started by the Millennials, they are most often life-style businesses or social ventures. Certainly there is nothing wrong with pursuing small-scale ventures or pursuing social change as an entrepreneur. However, it will be a challenge to create the kind of income and wealth this generation seems to feel entitled to with the small-scale ventures they seem to prefer. Of even more concern is that very few Millennials want to build businesses that create employment, which is the necessary aspect of entrepreneurship as an agent of economic growth.

Paradox 3.

Millennials tell us that the single most important thing they look for in a job is that it is something that they can be passionate about. However, at the same time, we see that this generation by and large does not have the sense of patience and stick-to-itiveness necessary to have success in any careers. I recently had a student tell me she quit a good paying job after only a month because she was just not passionate about the work she was doing. I have seen several Millennial entrepreneurs walk away from a promising new venture citing a loss of passion as their reason for giving up. And they do this with no job or new business to go to – often to get saved once again by their parents. True passion is part of what drives entrepreneurs to persevere to overcome the obstacles, frustrations, and setbacks that are part of the entrepreneurial journey. Such passion seems to be lacking in many young entrepreneurs.

In spite of the paradoxical nature of today’s young entrepreneurs, I plan to remain cautiously optimistic. We need to remember that they are young. With the maturity that comes with age and experience they may resolve these seemingly contradictory aspects of their entrepreneurial pursuits. I do hope that this is true, because we desperately need them to lead the way in revitalizing American’s entrepreneurial spirit and to help rebuild a broken economy.

This article was first posted in Free Enterprise.


Dr. Jeff Cornwall is the Jack C. Massey Chair in Entrepreneurship and Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. Read his blog, The Entrepreneurial Mind, at




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