I have for a number of years argued that ‘enterprise’ is not an inherently good thing and that we should not be encouraging or promoting enterprise as some sort of ‘new world economy force for good’.
At least, not if what we mean by enterprise is economic activity through self employment and entrepreneurship. If, by enterprise, we mean the ability of individuals and groups to act on the world, to make things happen, to shape their own futures and make things better for themselves, their families and their communities then perhaps we need be a little less cautious with our enthusiasm.
When I look at ‘enterprise development programmes’, especially those targeted at the poor, they are predominantly about self employment and entrepreneurship. Work with young people and schools sometimes takes a wider perspective on enterprise. But generally programmes targeted at adults view enterprise as synonymous with self employment and entrepreneurship. Funders want to know how you will promote enterprise, how you will encourage start-ups and self employment, how you will encourage VAT registrations, and how quickly you will do it. They want you to develop basic skills of literacy and numeracy and they want you to train people. Fast enterprise is the name of game with apparently little thought given to whether this is likely to help or harm longer term ambitions of changing the enterprise culture.
The truth is that for some people self employment and entrepreneurship can provide the perfect vehicle to a fulfilled and wealthy life. For many more it provides a subsistence lifestyle through continuous struggle. For some it ends in failure with their problems exacerbated through debt, bankruptcy, damaged confidence and self-esteem.
We should be encouraging people to approach enterprise with ‘optimistic caution’. We should be encouraging people to think twice about self employment and entrepreneurship – because the truth is that it is a risky and difficult way of making a living. The rewards can be great, but so too can the costs. It seems that almost every week I meet a ‘successful entrepreneur’ who tells me what their business cost them in terms of marriages and families.
Encouraging people into enterprise without helping them to really understand the potential downsides is irresponsible. It damages progress towards the goal of a more enterprising culture. As more people experiment with self-employment and entrepreneurship it is likely that business start-up rates will rise – but so to will business failure rates. And each business failure will have significant negative social consequences.
There is a very real chance that these business failures will serve to put a generation off enterprise for life.