Teenage tycoons

Updated Thursday 13th July 2006

Political parties are united on the need to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, But are teenage tycoons born or made?

Faced with generally low productivity and international competitiveness, Government policies in Britain and most other European countries over the past two decades have exhorted enterprising people to start up their own successful small businesses.

Initially driven by huge levels of unemployment, the ‘enterprise culture’ policies of the 1980s tended to focus on privatising publicly-owned assets and encouraging older unemployed workers to try self-employment. Indeed, fuelled mainly by funds from North Sea oil and generous donations from a number of private sector firms and foundations, a host of enterprise training initiatives and enterprise agencies sprang up. Self-employment doubled to record levels (3.7 million, about 12 per cent of the total workforce) and unemployment began to decline.

However, the idea of young entrepreneurs or of parents encouraging their teenagers to become tycoons was not a noticeable part of public rhetoric. Public policy and private initiatives were firmly focused on improving the efficiency of former state enterprises and on creating new jobs for the unemployed.

The entrepreneur was still a shadowy, and somewhat suspect, figure for much of Britain. The British Social Attitudes Survey 1990 actually found that a marginally smaller proportion of employees in Britain were seriously considering opting for self-employment in 1989 (16 per cent) compared with 1983 (17 per cent). And, even among those who had opted for self-employment, the 1992 Labour Force Survey found that a majority would prefer to work for someone else as an employee.

They were what the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor would term ‘necessity entrepreneurs’. Even so, all the major bodies that promote and support teenage entrepreneurs – Young Enterprise, Shell Livewire, the Prince’s Trust, and so on - have their origins in this turbulent era that saw Britain shift from manufacturing to become a service-based economy.

By the mid-1990s, more changes were in the wind as computer-based technologies began to impact on working practices and the economy. Traditional, industrial jobs began to disappear at a faster rate as older workers – both employees and the self-employed – began to retire. Despite an ageing population, many young workers were finding it harder to find a job. Increasingly, the future was seen as being driven by new opportunities thrown up by new applications of technology.

In 1998, the new government of Tony Blair redefined the enterprise culture in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship, with a focus on equipping the new up-and-coming generation with the skills and attitudes to develop and exploit the technologies of today and tomorrow.

The fresh focus on the younger generation appears to be working. Last year, self-employment hit 4.3 million, a new record. According to research published by the Small Business Service (SBS), increasing numbers of parents and teenagers feel that entrepreneurship is a suitable career choice.

Since 1963, Young Enterprise has been providing enterprise education to teenagers (and some pre-teenagers), hitting a record of more than 291,000 last year, a 40 percent increase on the previous year. Shell Livewire has supported more than 600,000 young entrepreneurs since 1982 and also reports increasing numbers.

The SBS is pushing the youth agenda too and reports that some 408,000 people attended 2,215 events – including business plan competitions and young entrepreneur of the year awards - across the Britain during its second national Enterprise Week last year. It expects to surpass that with the third Enterprise Week this November.

This focus on youth appears to have broad support across all parties, as the Director-General of the British Chamber of Commerce, David Frost, made clear at the BCC’s Annual Conference last year:

‘If communities are to be re-invigorated then we need to develop a spirit of enterprise which penetrates at every level and within every group of society – not least the young. So what we need is nothing less than a National Enterprise Strategy.

We must move away from a number of disconnected initiatives to provide a real ladder of progression, a rope which pulls young people through a linked series of connected programmes, all of which aim to get enterprise to stick, and we do not just mean “starting a business”; but we mean young people becoming more enterprising – taking responsibility for their own lives. Becoming a productive part of their own community.’

Against this backdrop, 'Teenage Tycoons' has raised a number of interesting issues. The young entrepreneurs - Jake, Oliver and Sarah - are clearly very enterprising and the programme has tapped into a real phenomenon. Moreover, the three have been genuinely innovative in providing new services to consumers.

Yet, they also seem to fit the old entrepreneurial stereotype of being very individualistic. And, they do not appear to have made use of the many enterprise training courses that abound for youngsters. They all seem to have supportive parents and perhaps this is more important. Each is unique, leaving unanswered the age-old question – are entrepreneurs born or can they be created?

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