What Is This Obsession With Finding A Job?

Freedom! Independence! The dream of being on one’s own! That’s the American ethic, nurtured by tales of hardy immigrants who took their lives into their own hands to brave a new country and of all those pioneers pushing the frontier ever westward. Kept alive by fable and fact in our culture and in all of the thousands of school districts of this country, the persistence of this ethic must mean that we’re turning out kids who just can’t wait to be entrepreneurs, right? Wrong.

A national profile of the characteristics and attitudes of college freshmen, based on the responses of around 450,000 students who entered college in the fall of 2010, makes one wonder what happened along the road to the university. In keeping with the trend toward practical, job-related fields, almost one-fourth of the respondents to the survey, 21.3%, indicated their “probable field of study” would be in strictly business administration related subjects such as accounting, finance, management, and marketing. That percentage is a conservative estimate since it doesn’t include such closely related fields as industrial engineering, secretarial studies, data processing, and computer programming and sciences, which could bring the figure up to almost one-third of the total.

When asked what they saw as their “probable career occupation,” however, only 2.6% of the respondents indicated that they expected to become “business proprietors,” in contrast with 17.1% who opted for obvious managerial or corporate professional roles such as “business executive” or “accountant.” If we include “farmers and ranchers” with the “business proprietors,” we can get the total choosing entrepreneurship up to 3.8%. Add in professions such as law, medicine, and dentistry, allowing for a large percentage in those fields connected to either government or big institutions, and we can stretch those opting for independence to 12.3% of the total.

How can this be? How is it possible that the intelligent, affluent products of thousands of American high schools, going on to our colleges and universities, so overwhelmingly see themselves working for somebody else?

One part of the explanation could be that both schools and parents believe that big is better, necessary, and even inevitable. This reverence for bigness is fed by several sources, including the unproven and questionable assumptions of planners and economists that bigger is necessarily more efficient and effective than smaller. This view is apparently gaining rather than losing support, despite evidence that small units are far more job-productive and innovative than are large units. Senior officials in the Obama Administration, even in the Department of Justice antitrust unit, apparently agree that the bigger our business units become, the more competitive we’ll be as a world economic force and the better off we’ll be as consumers. It follows that bigger units must eventually take over all important segments of both business and government, if these theories are followed to their logical conclusion. Further, as any business professor will tell you, bigger is more sophisticated, and who wants to be unsophisticated?

Another explanation of why loving parents join educators in encouraging their children into corporate and government careers is that most of the influential forces in our society — particularly our universities and their professors — consider small business, which is usually the same as entrepreneurship, “lowbrow.” With the possible exception of high-technology companies, small business is considered intellectually and socially uninteresting, as well as relatively unimportant, and the people in it are ranked in a lower class than corporate executives. The image conjured by the expression “mom and pop business” is of a shabby retail store operated by a dumpy couple of in determinate age who live upstairs. Surely no one would want their children to become or even to marry one of them.

But before you blame it all on the professors or on vague “societal values,” take a look in the mirror. The most poignant and disturbing explanation of why college freshmen aspire only to be hired hands is that a great many well-intentioned and loving parents, entrepreneurs themselves, don’t believe their children can or should take the chance of being on their own.

I first encountered this parental view when I was studying entrepreneurs in Europe. When I asked them, “Would you advise a child of yours to start a business?” the answer invariably was, “Oh no. You see, when I started my business, it was easy. There were no unions. There were few regulations. The market was easy. Today, it is impossible!” But when I asked them, “If you were to lose your business, what would you do?,” they invariably answered, “I would start another business!” The answers were the same wherever I asked that question, whether in France, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, Austin, Texas or Columbus, Ohio.

It is understandable that parents want the best for their children, but it is sad that “the best” is so widely considered to be found only in a riskless, secure, and usually uncreative career. Even in ethnic groups traditionally associated with entrepreneurship, such as the Jews and the Lebanese, the trend away from small business and entrepreneurship and toward careers in business and government is significant. Until recently, it was estimated that 40% of all Chinese-Americans were in business, but now the numbers are headed down. That trend is partly a result of equal opportunity legislation, but it also reflects a distaste for being identified with a business like Chinese restaurants, in which the majority of Chinese-American businessmen have traditionally been found. So gutsy, risk-taking, entrepreneurial parents, always with “the best” for their children in mind, watch with pride as the kids go off to prestigious schools and subsequent careers on the corporate ladder.

I believe if we are looking for courage, creativity, a spirit of adventure, and an ability to find one’s way no matter what happens in life, what better model can we pick for our children than the entrepreneur? And if you, the parents, are entrepreneurs, what happier situation can you imagine than one in which your children appreciate the value of your example?

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Ziad Abdelnour is a political activist and is the Founder and President of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon.