Coming Soon: Nontrepreneur Nation

Despite how U.S. students continue to lag far behind those in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan in math and science and score comparable to European students (NYT, 11/14/07), I was never concerned about the welfare of our nation. Even though, for more than a decade, U.S. students typically placed outside the top ten in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Why wasn’t I worried? The U.S. still leads in the number of patents awarded, in its disproportionate amount of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, and in the number of entrepreneurial ventures started each year. The U.S. rewards creativity with programs and prizes such as the MacArthur Fellows Program and numerous “entrepreneur of the year” awards. Confident about our unique culture and emphasis on creativity and entrepreneurship, I strongly believed that our national innovation engine would continue to lead in technology and entrepreneurship for decades to come.

However, recently I have begun to feel as though I am on shaky ground, confronting fears of collapse in our city on the hill. The current crop of U.S. students – what should become the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs – shows strong characteristics that counter the unique culture of innovation on which our country built itself, and our future is at risk.

Evidence of Changing Times
Around me, in various circles of my life, I’ve been seeing anecdotal evidence to bolster this concern.

Last week I came back from a college student conference where I serve as an adviser. The conference was started 22 years ago and typically has 500-1000 students attend each year, and I’ve been involved since 1992. Of late, we have recognized a trend among these student organizers, who are ambitious leaders on their campuses. Over the past five years there has been a change in their mentality. More and more, the student leaders were asking for guidance and hand-holding throughout the effort of organizing this conference. This was a strange experience for us, because previously the student organizers wanted more independence, and were pushing our boundaries. Today’s student organizers generally wanted to be told what to do instead of taking their own initiative – while, oddly enough, sometimes a greater degree of pretentiousness and sense of entitlement crop up.

Last year, I was speaking with a friend who is a school administrator in New York City about this trend I noticed. She agreed with my observation. In high schools, she also saw recent changes in students, where they want more guidance and reveal an increasing fear of failure. She recalled one conversation where she was talking with a student about why this student decided not to take Spanish:

“So why did you decide to not take the class?”
“Because I don’t know Spanish, so I’ll probably fail.”
“Well, that’s why you’re supposed to take it, so you can learn something you don’t know.”

My friend told me that these types of conversations with students – where uncertainty and the unknown are avoided rather than confronted – are becoming more common for her.

Causes for Declining Entrepreneurship
So I began to consider some of the causes for this lack of entrepreneurial spirit among students. I remember raising an eyebrow when in 1996, a few years after I graduated from college, the Educational Testing Service adjusted its scoring because the national average was dropping. A 730 verbal on the old scale would be awarded a perfect 800 on the new scale, and a math score of 780 on the old scale would get 800 on the new scale. Even in today’s new SAT Reasoning Test, a “perfect” isn’t a truly perfect score. I also remember grade inflation starting to happen while I was in college, when some universities began taking “Fs” out of their system. At Harvard in the early 2000s, 90 percent or more of students graduated with honors. And in 2003, The Washington Post’s Stuart Rojstaczer noted that fully half of all grades given at Pomona, Duke, Harvard, and Columbia are “As.”

In Denise Shekerjian’s book Uncommon Genius, she searched for the essence of creativity by following 40 winners of the MacArthur Prize (also known as the “genius award”). Some of the key characteristics she chronicled: the Fellows’ ability to take risks, and how they built resiliency. Resiliency comes from facing your mistakes and failures, and learning that failure is a path to success. Being resilient and able to take risks are characteristics that are also clearly necessary for entrepreneurship, as most successful entrepreneurs have failed at least once. From numerous veterans of Silicon Valley to local hometown entrepreneurs, failure is a badge of honor.

Yet for the past decade, we have been conditioning our next generation of would-be leaders, entrepreneurs, and scientists to avoid risks by letting them opt out of classes or exams they might not ace, we’ve been protecting them from failure with grade inflation, and we’ve been inflating their self-worth with scoring adjustments.

And the result? These actions have been destructive to this generation and to our nation. There have been additional adverse effects from this risk-avoidance approach. A 2004 article in Psychology Today, A Nation of Wimps, states that in 1996, anxiety overtook relationship concerns as the major problem cited by students, and The University of Michigan Depression Center estimated that depression affects 15 percent of college students nationwide.

Just a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my colleague Dan Wooldridge, a leadership consultant, about the recent entrants from Generation Y into the workplace. He said that companies have had to adjust because this was the first generation parented by “soccer moms” – every minute of their children’s lives have been scripted and scheduled from soccer to piano to church activities to social events.

“The kids are dropped off and picked up and taken to the next event on the schedule. They have not learned how to spontaneously organize or manage themselves, and so when they enter the workplace, they need more instruction, structure, and coddling. Also because their parents have so managed the risks they face and so trying things that might result in failure is absolutely terrifying,” he explained. He continued to state that this group’s strengths are multi-tasking, grew up in diversity, more optimistic than the previous generation, and can be very self-confident.

The parents of this generation have created a competitive frenzy for schooling and an abundance of “high achievers.” At the same time, they have promoted an environment of dependency on a parental figure, which is what I’ve been experiencing first-hand.

Our education system and the latest parental practices are threatening the valuable idea that failure and learning from it can lead to success.

Today, failure is still accepted in our society. But burgeoning undercurrents from our education system and the latest parental practices are threatening this valuable idea – that failure and learning from it can lead to success – which helps fuel our national innovation engine.

I am deeply concerned about the future of innovation and entrepreneurship in our nation, which is so strongly tied to its economic growth. To reestablish ourselves, we need a closer examination of our education system – and possibly wholesale changes in testing, grading, and teaching. For every Mark Zuckerberg or Matt Mullenweg who rises up from today’s generation of students, hundreds of thousands of future entrepreneurs, scientists, and leaders are not able to overcome their conditioning of dependency and doubt. My fear is that we are creating a nation of “nontrepreneurs,” and that because of our eroding entrepreneurial spirit we are losing future contributors to not only the U.S., but to the world.

So – Americans, world citizens – what should we do about this?
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Originally published at Insidework

Bernard is Vice President of the Lunsford Group, which is a private holding company consisting of entities in technology, media, research & consulting, health care, investment boutique, and real estate. Bernard also blogs at Silicon Moon.

14 Comments

  • This is well said. I’m in higher education and can identify with much of what you’ve written. I’ll also add that part of the problem is an entitlement culture, which undermines student independence. The problem is not just that many students are dependent on structure, family, and the things you mentioned, they also feel they deserve it or are entitled to it. When they don’t get the counsel, advice, or structure they need, they believe it’s the parent, teacher, or mentor’s fault, not their own.

  • I agree with the observations in this article. As people are the products of their upbringing, I suggest that we’re changing our educational system in ways that are inadvertently acting to condition out the kinds of risk-taking and challenge-seeking needed for our economic future. This is an age when standardized tests are applied at nearly every grade, and small children have to attend interviews to be allowed into some preschools. American icon Tom Sawyer, and real late bloomers like many famous scientists and entrepreneurs, wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s application-based, organization-kid culture, and it’s our loss.

  • Upper-middle class and middle class kids aren’t afforded much freedom anymore. Parents are so uptight about their kids’ futures that they overschedule and overmanage their kids’ lives.

    I wrote an article on this topic recently entitled, “We’re Raising a Generation of Organization Men (or Women)” (http://playborhood.com/site/article/were_raising_a_generation_of_organization_men_or_women/). Also, see David Brooks’ fantastic article on this subject, “The Organization Kid” (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks).

  • Thanks, Lee. Yes, it’s also this growing lack of ability to take responsibility that’s a concern and frankly odd at times.

    Thanks, George. I agree that we really need to rethink and examine the changes we made in our education system, and correct them as soon as possible where mistakes have been made.

  • I also agree with Bernard’s observations and see this same problem. We need to focus on teaching our children to point the finger at themselves – it is not always someone else’s fault. In addition parents need to teach their kids some independence – use public transportation. Our kids do need to learn to organize and get it done on their own. Parents who schedule 100% of their kids time are many times trying to keep them away from the drug culture – this is having an effect on our kids as the article shows. There needs to be a balance and connection with the kids that the parents need to find the time to cultivate – you have to know your kid. The educational system will follow the parents wishes and is always slow to react.

  • A very interesting article.

    In general, one might suspect that with the advent of SOX, demise of esteemed companies like Enron and Bear Stearns (for different reasons of course) and the eliminationof so many jobs that entrepreneurialism in the US increase.

    That said, as parents, educators and coaches, we collectively need to embrance and teach one thing: accountability. The entitlement aspect can actually be a great thing, but if blind, it’s arrogant, naive and a recipe for subfailure.

  • One need look only at how Japanese parents have long been bringing up their children to see some parallels toward incentivizing non-risk-taking and controlling nearly every minute of children’s lives. A major difference, however, is that Japanese children are held to exceptionally high, non-inflated academic standards, achievement of which is required to gain entry to employment at better Japanese companies. Once they’ve “made it” (become employed for life), these Japanese young adult “children” exhibit some of the same attributes as do U.S. youth and young adults today: laziness, little interest in self-improvement, little self-discipline, exceptionally little creativity, no interest in facilitating disruptive anything (but quickly embracing it when they “discover” it), dependency on supervisors as surrogate parents, etc. Some major Japanese companies have spent decades perfecting their cultures to embrace and capitalize upon such workforce idiosyncrasies. However, personal risk-taking and entrepreneurship went the way of the Dodo bird long ago in Japanese culture.

    I’ll argue that resolving our own future loss has less to do with formal education and far more with parenting. If anything, Japanese culture ought to teach us that.

  • Well written and very relevant. As a recent college grad and part of Gen Y I see this going on around (and in) me constantly. Looking to our strengths, “multi-tasking, grew up in diversity, more optimistic than the previous generation, and can be very self-confident,” it sounds like we are a generation of salesmen–you know, minus the ability to handle failure, and the ability to speak the languages of the people we’re selling to.
    At the same time, I will offer a youthfully ignorant counterpoint: how do we know that all this is a bad thing? So the kids don’t fit the previous mold. We don’t specialize. We don’t memorize. We don’t like to fail. So what? Well, I posit that failure is going to happen no matter what–that kids don’t encounter it quite as much quite as early may not be the end of the world. That we don’t specialize may cause some turmoil, but it may also lead to revolutionary cross-subject-matter (however that may be defined) developments, as we will have a solid understanding of many more topics. You’re not going to lose the specialists entirely–2 of my college roommates happily work in science labs, the third grinds out complex math algorithms for a living.
    Ultimately I think you have to have faith in evolution. Yes, there are loads of improvements that could and should be made to the education system, but when has the system ever been perfect?
    I’m with you in spirit, because I think all the observations you’ve made are true, but I thought the other side should be heard as well. I put the question back to you: what should we do about this?

  • Also, I agree with Jim to the extent that education isn’t necessarily to blame–be it parenting or just general environment and culture, these are character traits that are derived from more than just a classroom setting (especially for those who drop out of school).

  • Perhaps students have figured things out … it is not what you know but who you know. If you are not “in” this inner circle you will never see a dime unless you come from wealth …

    I am more worried about entrepreneurial stagnation … our country being out innovated by India and China.

  • I couldn’t agree more!!!!

    From a coaching perspective it’s the same…. Americans want to compete and win not develop. If they don’t win they move to where they can or change the boundaries.

    Even in American sports players are told exactly what to do and when to do it.

    Our greatest glory is nor in never falling its in rising every time we fall!!! Let the kids learn through failure, let them correct themselves and let them have ownership over what they are doing!!!!

  • [...] The end is nigh for the American entrepreneur. Our kids aren’t creative anymore. Finally paying the toll for that soul-crushing pressure cooker crucible that is the Bourgeois High School. [...]

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue and can’t agree with you more, Bernard. A testiment to these thoughts are two articles that I have posted on my cubicle wall:

    “Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled” – WSJ: Jeffrey Zaslow. (July 5, 2007)
    “Are Americans too lazy?” – Fortune: Geoff Calvin (August, 23, 2007)

    I guess one important question we should be asking is, “What motivates a person to take risks?”

    Thank you for your post.

  • Ty: The issue is declining entrepreneurship, which Bernard posits is the county’s last remaining advantage in competing internationally. The question Bernard raises is what is the root cause for the decline; to which he further posits is a lack of risk taking on the part of most of the Generation Y.

    Another resource that should be cited is the Kauffman Foundation. Kauffman’s President and CEO Carl Schramm wrote an excellent book entitled “The Entrepreneurial Imperative,” which summarizes the findings of much of that foundation’s research. It describes “why entrepreneurship alone—not anything else—can give America the necessary leverage to remain an economic superpower.”

    Large business generally eschews true innovation and entrepreneurship. Generation Y people individually may do well in that environment, where power is the prime motivation among those wishing to get ahead. That what was behind my prior post suggesting that Japan and Japanese business is a harbinger for the future of the U.S., U.S. business and Gen Y employees.

    David asks “What motivates a person to take risks?” The answer is deeply rooted personal satisfaction of accomplishment, especially in circumstances where most people or organizations will not undertake the risk of achieving some end goal. The primary motivation behind entrepreneurs is the same as for those that attempt to climb Mount Everest. It certainly is not money, power or fame. Those things sometimes come as a result of accomplishment, but not always.

    Since this blog appears in peHUB, I’ll add to the concern that financing sources are drying up for the few entrepreneurs remaining, quite likely due to investors also losing any appetite for risk taking, especially compared to venture capitalists in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. A very long list of major VC-backed FORTUNE 500 companies literally could not get funded as start-ups today.

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