At the end of June, U.S. employers listed more available jobs—4.7 million—than at any point since 2001. Unemployment is also falling, while consumer confidence has stabilized. By multiple measures, the economy is in better shape now than at any point over the last few years. So why are many twenty-somethings more interested in creating their own job than they are in accepting a job from somebody else? The issue is a complex one, not least because the next generation of would-be entrepreneurs lacks the basic skills and knowledge needed to get a business up and running.

A new study by CT Corporation shows that 61 percent of recent college grads want to start their own business, 45 percent believe that it is likely they will start a business, and 51 percent say starting their own business will in the long-term provide greater security than a job with an existing company. Only 45 percent, however, think that starting a business is feasible, while 67 percent do not possess the basic skills (including preparing a business plan, incorporating a business, and meeting state requirements) needed to start a business.

The findings by CT Corporation aren’t exactly novel. A similar study conducted by Buzz Marketing Group and the Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC) in 2011 found that among members of Generation Y, one in five planned to quit their day job and start their own business. In fact, 81 percent thought they’d at some point own a business or be self-employed. Moreover, 89 percent said that, in light of the new economy and job market, entrepreneurship education was important. Yet 72 percent said that the classes they’d taken didn’t adequately prepare them to start a business, and most didn’t think enough support was available from the government and banks.

Taken together, the studies show that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong among young Americans, but that skill and resource gaps threaten to undermine Millennials’ self-employed ambitions. They also reveal new ways of thinking about work that are motivated by the market disruptions of the past several years. “You’re talking about a generation that has seen what happened with their parents and Enron, and what happened in 2009 and 2010—the traditional workforce eroding before our eyes,” says YEC founder Scott Gerber. “Understand the reality of today versus the nostalgia of yesteryear. Instability is here to stay.” The reality of today is significantly different from the one faced by Millennials’ parents and grandparents and includes:

  • Average student loan debt that has never been higher and is nearly double the amount borrowers had to pay back 20 years ago.
  • Mistrust in financial institutions and a job market that, despite encouraging recovery numbers, is replacing high and mid-wage jobs with low wage, burger-flipping “McJobs.”
  • A “sharing” economy that favors commingling everything from housing to transportation to bank accounts.
  • Having to move back in with mom and dad after graduation.
  • A global rethinking of economic growth amid mounting environmental concerns.

Still, despite all of the factors working against them, Millennials (the generation raised on praise) are incredibly upbeat: 73 percent say that when they decide to do something, no one can stop them; 80 percent say they are sure they’ll get what they want in life; and 82 percent say they own their future and have nobody to blame but themselves for failure. Whether Millennials, our largest generation at 80 million strong, can harness their enthusiasm into viable businesses models remains to be seen. What seems certain is that the reality—and economy—of tomorrow will look quite different than that of today.

For business owners and investors alike, crisis and change create opportunities. Armed with new technologies and attitudes, Millennials are poised to start businesses that can transform today’s realities into the economy of tomorrow. But as the CT Corporation survey shows, they’re going to need some help.

Changing Attitudes Among America’s Largest Generation

Millennials aren’t merely the largest generation in America; they’re the largest generation in American history.

Millennials aren’t merely the largest generation in America; they’re the largest generation in American history. That distinction used to belong to Millennials’ parents, the Baby Boomer generation, who are now settling into their Golden Years as their children enter their prime earning years. As much as Boomers want to see their kids settle into “real jobs,” steadily working and saving towards the future, this expectation does not mesh with reality.

While generation gaps have always existed, the one between Millennials and Boomers, and indeed between Millennials and every generation before them, is wide. We’re not just talking about a shift in norms. We’re talking about a new normal. “Where do you suggest many of these young people get a ‘real’ job in the first place?” says Scott Gerber. “The mall? Wal-Mart? Millennials are no longer beneficiaries of the hand-out, resume-driven society of old. Boomers and Gen Xers need to stop training Gen Y to believe that the mantra of ‘work hard, get good grades, go to school and get a job’ that they were told to buy into, is alive and well. It’s not—it’s dead—and now it needs to be buried for good.”

The G.I. Generation or “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw coined them in his book of the same name, grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II. But despite their sacrifices and deprivations, this generation was rewarded with lifetime job security and generous health and pension benefits, and thus maintained faith in our institutions. Baby Boomers, although they questioned the establishment, ultimately maintained their parents’ faith in the ability of our institutions to provide long-term security. For Boomers who saw their nest eggs crack during the Great Recession, that faith may, in hindsight, have been misplaced. Cracks in the system started to show up well before 2008. The downsizing of America’s workforce between 1979 and 1995, coinciding with now-familiar leaps in executive salaries and the shipping of American job overseas, began to cast doubt on the values of hard work and company loyalty.

This doubt erupted into cynicism among the relatively small Generation X. Still, in spite of dropping pay and rising insecurity, Gen Xers mostly played by the rules established by their parents and grandparents. They may have questioned and put off careers, families, homes, and the other trappings of success, but they bought into them eventually. In so doing they implicitly agreed with Curt Cobain, leader of Nirvana, the flagship band of Generation X, who said “I like to complain and do nothing to make things better.”

Generation Y, on the other hand, likes to complain and then do something to make things better. And really, they may not have a choice. Previous generations experienced economic dislocation in various forms, but an assumption of basic financial security remained. That assumption is now bunk, and so too are the production and consumption patterns that it supported. Millennials’ attitudes toward basic institutions of the American Dream, including home and car ownership, jobs, and banking, reflect a restructuring of the economic and cultural order. However the post-crisis period shapes up, one thing is for sure: it will be shaped by Millennials responding to the realities—and opportunities—of their time.

Seeds of Insecurity: Student Loan Debt and the Great Recession

“Congratulations to Class of 2014, Most Indebted Ever.”

College graduates have never had any guarantees coming out of school. The dual threat of heavy debt and a poor job market faced by today’s grads, however, have muddied the post-graduation waters like never before. A headline from the May 16th Wall Street Journal succinctly tells the first part of the tale: “Congratulations to Class of 2014, Most Indebted Ever.” The Journal reports that the average Class of 2014 graduate is the proud owner of some $33,000 in student-loan debt. Adjusted for inflation, that’s close to double the amount of debt students graduated with in 1994. Not only are students graduating with more debt, but more students are graduating with debt, period. 70 percent of this year’s graduates will leave their four year school with student loans. Twenty years ago, less than half of graduates had student loan debt.

As the WSJ article sarcastically points out, the Class of 2014 won’t be the most indebted for long; the Class of 2015 is set to take that distinction over from them, just as they took it over from the Class of 2013. There is now more than $1 trillion worth of student loan debt in the United States, and the college debt burden continues to rise faster than inflation. Such depressing facts beg the question: Is a college education worth the debt? The latest data provides a resounding “yes.” In 2013, Americans with four-year degrees on average made 98 percent more per hour than non-degree holders. That’s up from 89 percent five years ago and 85 percent ten years ago, reports the New York Times. In other words, the cost of a college education has gone up, but so too has its value.

According to the Times, the April unemployment rate for 25 to 34 year olds with a bachelor’s degree was just three percent. And good economic news for all came with the release of the latest U.S. jobs report, which showed unemployment falling to 6.1 percent (the lowest since September 2008) and the best five-month stretch of job creation since early 2006. In June alone U.S. employers added 288,000 positions. All of this seems to bode well for the economy, yet it paints an incomplete picture. Wage growth, for example, is flat for both college grads and non-college grads, and what little economic growth there has been has gone mostly to the richest American households.

These trends are contributing to the “hollowing out” of the American middle class that has drawn attention in recent years. Encouraging employment figures distract from the fact that many of the jobs being added during the recovery provide lower wages and benefits than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. A 2012 study by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that “low wage” jobs accounted for 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession and 58 percent of the jobs added during the recovery. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the jobs lost in the recession were “mid wage” occupations, but these jobs have only accounted for 22 percent of growth since then. “In short,” concludes NELP, “America’s good jobs deficit continues. Policymakers have understandably been focused on the urgent goal of getting U.S. employment back to where it was before the recession…but our findings underscore that job quality is rapidly emerging as a second front in the struggling economy.”

A recent paper by New York Fed economists Richard Deitz and Jaison R. Abel confirms the trend of falling American job quality. The authors point out that young graduates historically, during good and bad economic times, tend to take a few years to settle into careers. They conclude, however, that particularly since 2001, it’s become more common for grads to settle for part time or low-wage jobs in professions like retail and hospitality. “Young college graduates entering the labor market since the 2001 recession face more challenges in finding a good job,” write Deitz and Abel. Another outcome of the recession has been employers attempting to lower costs by hiring temporary workers—a practice known as “contingent,” “flexible,” or “alternative” staffing.

Contingent hiring costs companies less than permanent hiring and has been become increasingly common during the recession. The number of people paid by temp agencies has grown 46 percent since 2009—and these aren’t all low-wage earners. Temp workers are everywhere, from college classrooms to corporate board rooms to factories to marketing departments. Many string together multiple temporary jobs in lieu of a single, permanent one. Some experts believe that the shift to free agent, project-based work heralds a change in the nature of work itself. “To some extent we’re all contingent now,” says Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor and author of the book “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.” “Work has become much more insecure, much more precarious. So everybody is a temporary in one sense, because their levels of job security have really decreased in recent years.”

The Challenges (and Perks) of Insecurity

Generational differences notwithstanding, the benchmarks of adulthood—finishing school, leaving home, gaining financial independence, marrying, and having kids—are more or less the same for Millennials as they were for Boomers and their parents before them. Studies show that Millennials want most of the things that preceding generations did. Their failure to launch isn’t voluntary. Rather, prevailing economic conditions are keeping them grounded. In fact, the first item on the adulthood checklist has already been ticked off by a large portion of today’s 20-somethings. Millennials, in terms of finishing college, are the most-educated generation in American history. It’s after they graduate, long on debt and short on prospects, that the problems begin.

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that the economic climate has affected young adults’ lives in profound ways. Due to the economy, 49 percent of 18-34 year-olds have moved back in with their parents. Among 25 to 29 year olds, the share moving back home rises to 34 percent. Compare this with a recent Fannie Mae Survey showing that 90 percent of Millennials prefer owning to renting. Currently, just 36 percent  of Americans under the age of 35 own a home—the lowest level since the Census Bureau started tracking home ownership by age in 1982. Pew Center research shows a similar discrepancy with regards to marriage. Just 26 percent of today’s 18-32 year olds are married. That’s much lower than the marriage rates for the three previous generations when they were the same age.

But it’s not the institution of marriage that Millennials oppose. Most (69 percent) say they would like to marry, but many believe they lack a solid enough economic foundation to get hitched. The same is true of having a baby, something that 22 percent of Millennials say they’ve postponed because of economic conditions. None of this is to say that Millennials don’t have their own take on adulthood. Couples, for example, may be delaying getting married, but they are quicker to mingle financial accounts.

Millennials haven’t had to adapt to new technologies. If anything, they’re using technology to adapt the world to their needs.

Today’s generation also shares cars and apartments in a “sharing economy” that is as much about changing technology as it is about changing demographics. To Millennials, access is more prized than ownership, and if they can get the goods and services they need without picking up more debt, so much the better. Why pay $30,000 for a new car that sits idle for most of the day when a service like Zipcar provides on-demand vehicle access? Re-urbanizing Millennials would prefer to spend expendable income on smartphones instead of on cars. “You no longer need to feel connected to your friends with a car when you have this technology that’s so ubiquitous, it transcends time and space,” Sheryl Connelly, head of global consumer trends at Ford, told the Atlantic.

Indeed, technology may be what most drastically divides Millennials from past generations. Described by Pew as “digital natives,” Millennials haven’t had to adapt to new technologies. If anything, they’re using technology to adapt the world to their needs. Consider banking, an industry that hasn’t figured out how to serve the needs of debt-ridden, gig-juggling youths. A poll by Scratch Marketing shows that 71 percent of Millennials would rather go to the dentist than listen to what banks are saying. All four of the leading banks are among the ten least loved brands by Millennials. One in three are open to switching banks in the next 90 days, while 33 percent believe that in five years, they won’t need a bank at all. Nearly half are counting on tech-startups to overhaul the way banks work. 73 percent would be more excited about a new offering in financial services from Google, Amazon, Apple, Paypal, or Square than from their own bank.

Detached from institutions, unmoored from steady jobs, fluent in technology, and with no illusions about cradle to grave security, Millennials are finding out that insecurity can actually be quite liberating. “I’m actually more secure right now, because I understand that the bottom can fall out at any time,” says freelance Las Vegas performer Heather Burdette. Her sentiments are echoed by Atlanta temp worker Michael Sinclair, who says working multiple, short-term jobs is better than his old corporate position. “I think it’s far less risky than being in a full-time job somewhere and cut at will and left with nothing,” said Sinclair. Never underestimate Millennial optimism. Despite their financial burdens, Millenials are more optimistic about the economy than any other living generation. More than eight in 10 say they have or will have in the future enough money to lead the life they want. Their optimism could be dismissed as simply the timeless confidence of youth. Or maybe it speaks to Millennials acknowledgement that they’re going to have to create a job to keep a job.

AvatarBrian Eckert

Brian writes for the He enjoys educating people about their rights in a society where legal fine print is creeping ever further into our daily lives.