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Millennials are Born Entrepreneurs. Wait, Really?

Commentators are claiming that Gen Y-ers and Millennials are start-up naturals, and great salespeople. Or are they just victims of circumstance?
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When each generation comes into young adulthood, a flurry of commentary attempts to uncover the fundamental nature of the cohort and discover what makes them tick. For Gen Y, all the media pieces about digital natives and helicopter-parented, over-scheduled team players seem to have slowly coalesced into one story line about the so-called Millennials: They're born entrepreneurs.

That's what, for example, a recent New York Times opinion piece by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz claims. He dubs people born from the late '70s to the mid-'90s "Generation Sell," and writes: "The thing that strikes me most" about the group, and its archetypal figure, the hipster, Deresiewicz writes, "is how nice they are: polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly."

Deresiewicz clearly hasn't met many of the sneering, decidedly unpleasant subtype of hipster that stalks particular urban enclaves viciously ridiculing those they judge to have a substandard level of cool. Regardless, his observations add up to a coherent vision of what current youth culture is all about. He writes:

The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials' characteristic social form. Here's what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

Today's ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it's the small business.

And it's not just Deresiewicz who claims that Gen Y doesn't want to change the world so much as sell its inhabitants more stuff (or maybe, just maybe, change the world by selling more stuff). Let's consider a sales-savvy source. Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, came to a similar conclusion in Fast Company a few weeks ago:  

Today's teens are surprisingly in harmony with their parents. They wear the same branded jeans, have similar music in their iTunes library, are happy to accompany one another to a U2 concert, and if you ask them, many will talk about their friendly, supportive relationship...

So, what's going on? Has the rebellious stage bypassed Generation Y and their parents? How will this affect their budding identity? It's too soon to tell, but there's one fundamental difference between then and now: Generation Y are born entrepreneurs.

OK. Same conclusion. Let's take a step back here. Certainly the early years of many members of Gen Y have been marked by general affluence, supportive parenting, and an explosion of horizon-expanding technology that makes the world seem less hostile and more fun to navigate. Why not cash in?

But at the same time, the seemingly endless economic doldrums (the flicker of optimism from this week's jobs numbers notwithstanding), the rise of the Occupy movement, and the general sense that young people are being particular battered by coming of age in a monster recession, suggests that while the '90s and naughts didn't offer much to rebel against, the current decade certainly does.

While the lure of start-ups is probably here to stay for Gen Y (and the reputation of corporate American is probably permanently tarnished), it's more of an open question whether Gen Y isn't slowly simmering towards rebellion, or at least a desire to change the status quo of their Boomer parents.

As Richard Settersten, author of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone, has said: "the media focuses so much on coddled kids, but there's a huge, invisible class of young people that's just not part of our public discussion and who are really in dire straits."

That suffering segment of Gen Y is nothing to overlook. For every kiddie-soccer-raised start-up entrepreneur, how many unemployed—or underemployed—recent grads are still sleeping in their parents' basements? How many are working at any job they could get as hard as they can out of economic fear? How many simply started selling their hobby arts, crafts, or cuisine, because they couldn't find other work?

it's worth considering that the legacy of the Millennials will be of a generation strapped with debt after coming of age during the Great Recession. Not selling—or selling out—isn't exactly an option.

The new millionaires created by likes of Facebook and Groupon are outliers. They shouldn't be considered the norm.

Do you think Gen Y's contented start-up mania will begin to unravel if the economic gloom continues? Or is this one group of young people who actually have something special going for them that's going to stick?

IMAGE: ladyvee9 via Flickr
Last updated: Dec 6, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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