Since mid-September, Uber has been rolling out its first platoon of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. While they’re not technically driverless (for now, there’s someone sitting in the front seat, just in case), these cars have proven remarkably effective at traversing the hilly and narrow streets of Pennsylvania’s second-largest city with little or no human help.
The technology still shows room for improvement, but according to tech experts and carmakers, self-driving cars could be standard nationwide in just a few years’ time. While in some ways good for consumers, this could spell bad news for truckers, cab drivers and other service providers at all levels of the transportation industry.
This example shows how rapid technical advancements are changing the very fabric of employment. And it’s not just about jobs lost.
Not too long ago, a single job or employer would often last a lifetime. But in 2014, the average job tenure was a mere 4.6 years, and the average lifespan of Fortune 500 companies is falling at an accelerating pace. One widely read study projects that 75% of the companies in the S&P 500 in 2015 will be off the index in 15 years. Indeed, young people joining the job market today enter into an increasingly dynamic space. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary school will ultimately end up working in new job types that don’t yet exist. We stand on the verge of profound advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, health sciences and nanotech that will precipitate even greater changes in the nature of employment.
Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes saw this coming. In The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, Keynes wrote, “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment.”
Keynes was among the first to describe the link between technological advancement and rising levels of unemployment and predicted that the trend would intensify over the following century with problematic consequences for the world economy. Yet, in an optimistic vein, Keynes looked forward to the point when societies would adapt to this accelerating rate of change. He foresaw an era when people would require entirely new skillsets and outlooks for work and life success. And indeed, today there is at least one group of people who feel at home in the unstable domain of the modern economy.
Enter the entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship has long propelled the American economy. Startup activity represents one of the highest correlations with strong economic performance. New businesses account for nearly all new net job creation and 20 percent of gross jobs created, accounting for roughly 1.5 million jobs per year in the United States over the past three decades. And these new businesses are particularly important in times of economic uncertainty and comparative stagnation in GDP growth: Between 2006 and 2009, young firms remained a net positive source of employment growth, whereas older and larger firms shed more jobs than they created.
But research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has recently shown several disconcerting trends in the world of American entrepreneurship. In 2015 the percentage of Americans starting businesses increased, reversing a five-year downward trend, but the overall level of new entrepreneurial activity remains well below its peak in 2009. Of these new entrepreneurs, fewer and fewer are young people. In 1996, the rate of new entrepreneurs was 34.3% among 20 to 34-year-olds. The same figure in 2014 had dropped to 24.7%, the largest change, by far, of any age group.
Young people are falling behind in today’s entrepreneurial landscape. To reverse these trends, we must integrate the teaching of entrepreneurship into the curriculum of American education. Leveraging the wisdom of leading entrepreneurs and education experts, we can create age appropriate curricula for students at all levels. Here are some key insights to help in the process:
- Entrepreneurship is a learnable skill.
Entrepreneurial ability is often characterized as some innate talent or inbred skill. But experts in the field of entrepreneurship education disagree. In the 2014 book Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach, researchers from Babson College highlight key themes in this form of education. They consolidate years of experience in the field and data-driven research to offer 45 exercises that any teacher can use to foster the skills of entrepreneurship in their students. Educators around the world have begun to see that when it comes to entrepreneurship, learning is possible, and practice is key.
- Entrepreneurship should be taught early.
Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google were all founded by people between the ages of 20 and 26. Over 80% of the social entrepreneurs in Ashoka’s Fellowship Program founded an organization of some kind before the age of 20. Largely unburdened by familial or financial constraints, young entrepreneurs are often the most attractive targets for investors in both for-profit and non-profit realms. They offer fresh perspectives on existing social issues or market opportunities that have led to some of the great systems-changing ideas of our era. If our society is to foster more transformative enterprises like these, entrepreneurship should be a part of the curriculum for every elementary, middle and high school student.
- Practicing entrepreneurship instills important life skills.
Failure is an entrepreneur’s unwanted best friend. Eight out of ten startups fail within the first 18 months of their existence. And yet only through repeated failure do leading entrepreneurs bring at least one of their ventures to fruition as operating businesses. In the process, they develop self-confidence, tenacity and learning agility. Want to peak the interest of a great entrepreneur? Ask them how many times they failed on their way to success. Want to identify the best indicators of positive academic and life outcomes? According to education experts like Paul Tough, author of the 2012 bestseller How Children Succeed, grit, tenacity and risk-taking are at the top of the list.
In 2013, researchers at Oxford University predicted that by 2030, the year Keynes’ predicted in his essay, almost half of all existing US jobs will be lost to automation and artificial intelligence. Responding to such daunting prospects will require a new generation of innovative thinkers and job creators, inured to uncertainty and failure and hell-bent on changing the world. In the time of Keynes’ great-grandchildren, entrepreneurship is the name of the game. Let’s make that message an essential part of every American student’s education.