Google is chock-full of millennial career horror stories. A December 2016 Forbes article points out that the US millennial unemployment rate is 12.8% compared to the national average of 4.9%. Millennials are not just struggling to find entry-level jobs – they are also struggling to fit into jobs with older bosses.[1] There is no escaping how serious a problem it is if millennials are struggling to find jobs and succeed once they have them. Many commentators suggest that entrepreneurship is the solution. The idea is that millennials’ creative dynamism and technological know-how, as well as their increasingly uncertain traditional career prospects, should produce an extremely entrepreneurial generation.

Many believe this is occurring. Just pay attention to the portrayals of millennial entrepreneurs in our popular culture. Movies like the social network and TV shows like Silicon Valley, depicting superstar millennial tech entrepreneurs, are extremely popular. But as is so often the case, myth and reality diverge. If we define entrepreneurship purely as owning a business, millennials are extremely unentrepreneurial, relative to other generations:

“Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history,” John Lettieri, the co­-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, testified last week before the U.S. Senate. The share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen by 65 percent since the 1980s and is now at a quarter-century low, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data.”[2]

And even if we think purely in terms of tech start-ups, which are supposed to be a young man or woman’s game, we don’t find millennials in most of the leadership positions: “The average age for a successful start-up founder is about 40 years old, according to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on education and entrepreneurship.”[3]

If you’re a millennial, I don’t want you to be too disappointed about this. There are good reasons why, if you’re struggling with career uncertainty, it’s not a great idea to start a business. Businesses are risky, especially so for those that have never run a business:

“The entrepreneurship studies that grab headlines tend to focus on investor-backed, technology startups. Those types of firms aren’t the norm. Most new businesses are still small, local retailers. To understand how these enterprises fare, Francine Lafontaine and Kathryn Shaw studied the successes and failures of retail entrepreneurs in Texas from 1990 to 2011. Over the 21-year-period, 2.4 million retail businesses opened and 2.2 million closed. Three out of every four were founded by first-time business owners.”

Starting a business is a strong signal about where you see yourself on the risk-reward spectrum; you’re indicating that it’s the right time in your life to go for a big win while recognizing (hopefully) that there’s a chance you’ll fail. But what are you going to do if you fail? Particularly if you’re one of the many of us who struggle with student loans. They’re extremely difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.[4]

These are the reasons why, for most career-struggling millennials, I don’t see entrepreneurship as the answer. But I do see entrepreneurial thinking as a big part of the answer. Let me be clear about what I mean.

I define entrepreneurial thinking as applying the scientific method to various areas of our lives. This means that for any problem or situation in which we wish to make progress, we come up with a creative hypothesis about how the problem might be solved, dispassionately test it and gather data, then the optimize the hypothesis based on what we learn.

Here’s an example, in the context of a millennial searching for a career. Let’s assume my friend Jason who began his career as a management consultant is sick of the work; he no longer wishes to spend his life creating lengthy PowerPoint presentations in hotel rooms. He’s an extrovert so he’s looking for a career in which his people skills will shine. He’d much rather focus on building relationships with people than with spreadsheets. He’s considering a career in government relations because he’s heard from others that the core of the work is expense account lunches, martinis and cigars and building relationships with government decision-makers. But he’s unsure of whether he can get a job in the industry without any government experience. Many lobbyists have worked in government because clients value their knowledge of its inner workings.

Jason has come up with two hypotheses that he needs to test:

  1. Government relations is all about relationship building, not desk work and…
  2. It’s possible to break into the industry without any government experience

There are a number of ways he can test and gather data. LinkedIn is an extremely powerful one. Jason can look for people who are or were used to be in the government relations industry, learn about their backgrounds (perhaps some used to be management consultants before making the transition) and reach out to people he wants to speak with. Informational interviews are now a well-accepted approach to learning about an industry and they are extremely powerful if you use them to test your hypotheses. If he speaks to five people in the industry, odds are that he will have very good data which will allow him to either confirm his hypothesis or optimize it, if necessary.

If it turns out he is a good fit for the industry, he’ll have built relationships that may prove crucial for getting the job. The key to his success lies in testing his hypotheses dispassionately, for like with relationships, we’ve a tendency to mythologize prospective careers. Before we know enough about them, they can appear as legends in our minds so we can easily pursue and accept the wrong offers. When all the evidence in your gut are screaming in your ears, you must pay attention. If you have any doubt at all about an offer, you should conduct further experiments. Talk to more people or better yet, job shadow. Accepting the wrong offer can have serious consequences.

Any way you look at it, it’s in your interest to conduct a whole series of small experiments. Baby steps can help you increase your confidence and teach you about how the world really works. You don’t have to know exactly what you want before you try the experiments – they’re all about helping you figure that out.

I appreciate that, in contrast to my example, many millennials have no job experience whatsoever or no clue about which industry they wish to join. I’ll be discussing that subject soon, too. For the time being, please leave a comment below if you’ve an opinion about this article!

References:

[1] Yourstory. Millennials Are Struggling To Adapt To Their Workplace. And Here’s Why https://yourstory.com/2016/07/challenges-of-millennials-workplace/
[2] Thompson, Derek. The Myth of the Millennial Entrepreneur https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/the-myth-of-the-millennial-entrepreneur/490058/
[3] Thompson, Derek. The Myth of the Millennial Entrepreneur https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/the-myth-of-the-millennial-entrepreneur/490058/
[4] Dash, Stephen. Why Student Loans Are So Difficult To Discharge in Bankruptcy. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephendash/2015/10/25/why-student-loans-are-so-difficult-to-discharge-in-bankruptcy/#5992abb67202