Jesus Was An Entrepreneur

Okay, so that was a cheap attention grab. Jesus was not an entrepreneur. Or perhaps he was some sort of “social entrepreneur.” But he certainly wasn’t running around trying to figure out how to reinvigorate capitalism. If he was here today, that would be what it would take for him to be considered a Saviour.

I’ve been considering whether “Entrepreneurship Saves,” because of this seems to me an emerging zeitgeist (kind of a social mood) that ought to attract our scrutiny. In my home digs of Alberta, the “entrepreneurial spirit” has been touted as a provincial virtue. In 2011, our public education system, in keeping with this message, launched a curriculum framework that aspires to “Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit.”

So if our education systems are supposed to produce an “entrepreneurial spirit,” what is it? A 2013 Forbes article opens with this account:

“Entrepreneurial spirit is a mindset. It’s an attitude and approach to thinking that actively seeks out change, rather than waiting to adapt to change. It’s a mindset that embraces critical questioning, innovation, service and continuous improvement.”[1]

In the context of this article, an “entrepreneurial spirit” is considered as a corporate asset among employees. The smart HR strategy is to encourage ideas and innovation among all ranks of the organization. There’s your demand-side argument for entrepreneurial thinking: employees who think this way are an asset to the company.

But what does an “entrepreneurial spirit” mean for the supply side of the labour market? For workers in the more general sense? This is where things get interesting, because there is growing acknowledgement that the corporate employees referred to above – at least the kind with secure full-time jobs – are an endangered species.[2] “Entrepreneurship” for more and more workers isn’t then just about thinking creatively; it’s about aggressively marketing oneself as “product” or “brand.” It also means having a positive attitude about living in perpetual precarity, from contract to contract, from gig to gig. It means creatively embracing the risk of not eating, or of losing your home, while maintaining the hope that your big break will come with your next big idea.

No group is at greater risk of labour market precarity than youth. Globally, unemployment and underemployment are most likely to impact young workers.[3] A sudden change in the fortunes of this cohort seems unlikely. So how do you instill hope in generations who are already astute enough to know that they won’t do as well as their parents? You draw upon that all-to-often cited factoid that the “Chinese character for crisis is composed of characters for danger and opportunity.[4] You invoke swash-buckling, daring-do as a virtue.[5] You put Spanx, lipstick and a spray-tan on risk and call it beautiful.

Risk is cool.

No wonder our universities, colleges, and polytechnics are asking young people to think like entrepreneurs.[6] This has been a central observation I’ve made as I’ve combed online undergraduate recruitment literature presented by Canadian universities. Prospective students – keep in mind these are generally young adults still forming their own identities – are strongly encouraged to see themselves as risk takers. One university labels its students, faculty and alumni as “innovators, trailblazers and visionaries.” Another queries, “Are you more ambitious and driven than most? Brave and always curious? Are you a great team player and at the same time a bit of a rebel?” Students are promised “opportunities…to understand how to take calculated risks, contribute to positive change, and harness innovation at school and in their local and international communities.” They’ll engage in “innovative thinking through exposure to different cultures and socio-economic systems increased development activities and experiences.” [7]

You get the idea. Risk is cool.

And now consider this (fawning) account of, among other famous entrepreneurs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos:

“Living by the motto that “every challenge is an opportunity,” Bezos set out to create the biggest bookstore in the world with a little internet startup called Amazon.” Challenged by critics, he “came out fighting with optimism and confidence, pointing out to critics all the positive things his company had accomplished and would continue to do.”[8]

Here, you can see the same virtues described in university recruitment literature cited above –audacity, persistence, optimism, and self-confidence – promoted in a retrospective account of a success story. Arguably, when entrepreneurial history is written by and for its winners, it is the rewards of risk that are highlighted, overshadowing the more basic premise that risk is a risk of something  – namely failure.

This is the dark underbelly of the “Enterepreneurship Saves” message, and you’ll never see it featured in the optimistic, upbeat video student biographies that pepper university recruitment hubs. Not only is such negativity bad for university business, it also dumps cold water on the project of conditioning our upcoming generation to think positively about a foreseeable future marked by uncertainty, discouraging labour market prospects, and stagnant or reversing social mobility.

Instead of being asked to examine the causes of these conditions – to examine and perhaps challenge the underlying reasons why it sucks to be a Millennial in the labour force – young adults are being asked to see success and failure as individual (never a societal) accomplishments. And this is a deal. It speaks, very fundamentally, to how we frame the causes of inequality. The “entrepreneurial spirit” revives the Horatio Alger tale in full flower.

References

[1] Smith, J. (2013, October 22). How to keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive as the company you work for grows. Forbes Magazine.

[2] See Vosko, L. (2006). Precarious employment: Understanding labour market insecurity in Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press. Kalleburg, A. (2011). Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

[3] This (2010) OECD report outlines global youth labour prospects. Although policy priorities are focused on the youth who don’t obtain post-secondary education, it is also acknowledged that educated youth are facing longer, more difficult transitions to work, and are also at risk. Youth unemployment is consistently twice general unemployment.

[4] Even Wikipedia deconstructs this cliché.

[5] See the Crimson Permant Assurance segment in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

[6] See Attfield,  P. (2015, Oct 20). Teaching the next generation: What do they need to learn? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/international-business/teaching-the-next-generation-what-do-they-need-to-learn/article26874485/

[7] I’ve also observed universities marketing to potential students (and no doubt to alumni and corporate interests) through investments in infrastructures to support innovation — through undergraduate research opportunities, business incubators, maker spaces, and innovation hubs among other initiatives.  Critics have some questions about this business — chiefly whether there is any space (or funding) left for research that isn’t aimed at eventually generating a profit. But that’s another blog.

[8] Pierce, S. (n.d.) The spirit of the entrepreneur: These five characteristics will take you far as start your business. The rest of this obsequious myth-making can be read here. There is not date on it. Apparently it came out before it was widely disseminated that “the Amazon way” sucks for everyone else except Jeff Bezos.

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