When I was a teen, getting a job usually meant one thing: flipping burgers at a local fast-food chain. Today, teens are just as likely to launch their own businesses as to take an entry-level job.
Studies show Gen Z (those born after 1995, following the Millennials) are very entrepreneurial—self-starters who aren’t afraid to take responsibility for their own careers. Nearly eight in 10 students in grades 5 through 12 say they want to be their own boss, according to Gallup. Another study conducted by Millennial Branding shows that 72% of high school students and 64% of college students want to start their own business.
“While Gen Y is known for ‘side gigs’ and having multiple careers, Gen Z is more focused on working for themselves,” notes Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, adding that today’s teens are “poised to become the most entrepreneurial generation we've ever seen.”
A mix of socio-economic and tech factors are empowering teens to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. The weak economy and abysmal job market has something to do with it. As of 2011, only 26% of teens were employed—a sharp decline from the 45% teen employment rate that was more typical from 1950 to 2000.
And as the first truly digital natives, Gen Z’s outlook is heavily influenced by the dominant online platforms of today. It has never been easier to monetize your skills and knowledge, and teens are taking advantage of that. Thanks to sites like TaskRabbit, teens can easily find freelance work and connect with potential clients.
Social media has removed barriers for teens to create and promote their content. Before the rise of social, the one option teens had to get into the media and entertainment industry was to be a child actor, model or singer, which meant having one specific skill set, moving to New York or Los Angeles, and competing against hundreds of others in auditions. Now, teens can establish their own YouTube channels, and write, direct, produce, star in and promote their own content, on virtually any subject. Even media publications and businesses are recognizing the influence of these entrepreneurial teens. The teen son of a former colleague of mine has his own YouTube channel and was recently quoted in a major trade publication as a subject-matter expert. That never would have happened for previous generations.
Online and social platforms also empower teens who want to start their own non-profit, invent their own products or sell their own merchandise. It’s not just about fame: entrepreneurial teens are addressing social problems rather than waiting for government to do something about them. They’re forming their own small businesses rather than waiting for the job market to improve or for companies to consider them over millennials. Many are interning at established companies and then using that experience to go off and form their own company.
For brands, the rise of the entrepreneurial teen requires a different approach to customer engagement. The entrepreneurial teen is an empowered one, and companies can’t think of Gen Z as simply consumers. Teens are establishing businesses that could compete with yours, so collaboration is key. Reseller programs could enhance your distribution, for instance, while tapping into the entrepreneurial nature of your teen customers. Innovation contests and challenges could give you valuable R&D insight while working with teens closely to come up with new product ideas. Partnering with influential teen YouTubers could help you connect with a wider audience online. When you collaborate with teens, they’re less likely to launch initiatives that compete with yours.
Finally, remember how, thanks to social media, teens expect to have a voice. Engaging the empowered teen requires a two-way dialogue. Teens are not only buying your product, they’re also promoting it (or trashing it) online, improving it, changing it and using it in what they create. Companies need to build a relationship with teens, capture their feedback and use it to make better business decisions.
The entrepreneurial nature of Gen Z today is good news for companies that are willing to partner with customers. In the digital and mobile era, engagement is key to harness the feedback and insights of innovative teens.