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New entrepreneurial spirit clashes with old systems

byMark Minkjan

published on 7/11/2016

Amsterdam youth does not want to work for a boss. They value freedom and independence. This is the key finding of Design+Desires research in Amsterdam’s Dapperbuurt area.

In many countries, especially European welfare states, job markets are still functioning around cultures and beliefs that are rooted in the 20th century. Policies, laws and institutions such as labour unions are based on the idea of job security rather than livelihood security, self-fulfilment and independence. This often proves out of sync with how new generations want to live and work.

The Design+Desires team recently researched young people’s dreams and desires regarding work in Amsterdam’s Dapperbuurt area. The central question was if and how they would like to turn their passions into a dream job (see the report here).

The key finding is: most young people want to be self-employed, especially the higher educated. They value freedom and independence. What also stands out is that financial success is not their main concern: meaningful work and a sense of purpose are more important to them than money.

werken voor jezelf

Finding a salient job is a societal trend. In The New Spirit of Capitalism (2006), sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point to changing employment structures for young people: no longer do they want a career under one boss, but rather operate in more network-oriented organisation structures in which employees take the lead, are relatively autonomous and switch jobs regularly. In 2012, Cal Newport showed that the term “follow your passion” has become central to career considerations.

These desires are influenced by (and influencing) digital culture, with technologies allowing for new connections and collaborations, ways of learning and profiling yourself. Our research also showed young people strongly manifesting themselves online, in terms of creative skills, personality and lifestyle; increasingly presenting themselves as a brand. The ambition to start your own business only makes sense against this background.

But the road to self-employment is bumpy. Not everyone knows how to do it, practically and financially. Many education systems are still preparing people for prescribed jobs, instead of triggering them to find out what they are good at and want to achieve. Related to that, there is often little stimulus and support for young people to set up their own business, market their skills and find the right clients.

A lot of the systems that took shape in The Netherlands last century are even working against people who want to be self-employed. If you set out as a small entrepreneur, you are soon treated as a grown business, with all the obligations, restrictions and tax burdens that come with it. Moreover, social security for independents is limited. As a result, self-employment is often far more precarious than it really needs to be. If current developments continue, we might end up in a heavily polarised economy, with a “pampered, isolated royalty” on one end and a 21st century servant class on the other, something Lauren Smiley in her article already identified for U.S. cities.

There is a mismatch between how society is set up and how the new generation wants to make a living. Tim Urban’s famous story about Lucy – the millennial who wants to follow her passions but only gets unhappy because reality doesn’t live up to the expectations – is the case for many. For a large part, this has to do with a job market that is based on outdated values and systems.

Old structures need to change for passionate entrepreneurs to reach their potential, to create what they desire and to contribute to society at large. We should radically rethink how systems allow people to live and work, take the good bits we have achieved over the decades but update them according to new realities and technologies. If we trade the concept of job security for livelihood security, uncertainty for possibility, combined with support and encouragement for entrepreneurial spirits, individuals will flourish and the economy as a whole will benefit.


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