Last year was a fabulous one for entrepreneurs, at least according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released last month by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "Rather than making history for its deep recession and record unemployment," the foundation reported, "2009 might instead be remembered as the year business startups reached their highest level in 14 years -- even exceeding the number of startups during the peak 1999-2000 technology boom."
Another surprise is the age of these new entrepreneurs. According to the report, most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20's. It's the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy.
And if you thought minorities had been hit particularly hard by this awful recession, think again. According to the report, entrepreneurship increased more among African-Americans than among whites.
At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?
In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans have had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for "entrepreneur" is "self-employed."
According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the number of self-employed Americans rose to 8.9 million last December, up from 8.7 million a year earlier. Self-employment among those 55 to 64 rose to nearly two million, 5 percent higher than in 2008. Among people over 65, the ranks of the self-employed swelled 29 percent. Many older people who had expected to retire discovered their 401(k)'s had shrunk and their homes were worthless. So they became "entrepreneurs," too.
Maybe this is a good thing. A deep recession can be the mother of invention. These Americans are now liberated from the bureaucratic straitjackets they thought they had to wear. They can now fulfill their creative dreams and find their inner entrepreneurs. All they needed was a good kick in the pants.
But this upbeat interpretation doesn't include lots of people who don't particularly relish becoming their own employers, like an acquaintance whom I'll call George. George was an associate partner at one of the world's largest technology and consulting firms until he lost his job last year in a wave of layoffs. For months, George knocked on doors but got nowhere because of the deep recession.
Finally, his old firm got some new projects that required George's skills. But it didn't hire George back. Instead, it brought him back through a "contingent workforce company," essentially a temp agency, that's now contracting with George to do the work. In return, the agency is taking a chunk of George's hourly rate.
Technically, George is now his own boss. But he's doing exactly what he did before for less money, and he gets no benefits -- no health care, no 401(k) match, no sick leave, no paid vacation. Worse still, his income and hours are unpredictable even though his monthly bills still arrive with frightening regularity.
The nation's official rate of unemployment does not include George, nor anyone in this new wave of involuntary entrepreneurship.
Friday's job numbers are likely to show substantial gains but they'll still be small relative to the army of America's unemployed and underemployed -- and the growing number of anxiously self-employed.
Yet to think of the latter group as the innovative owners of startup businesses misses one of the most significant changes to have occurred in the American work force in many decades.
Typically each year, large numbers of Americans leave their old jobs to find new ones. Unemployment rises during recessions mainly because companies hire fewer workers, not because they lay more people off. But this Great Recession has been different. Layoffs by mid-sized and large companies have surged while hiring has almost disappeared.
These companies have used the sharp downturn as an opportunity to cull their payrolls for good -- substituting labor-saving technologies and outsourcing to workers abroad or to contract workers here. This explains why almost half of America's unemployed have been jobless for more than six months -- a greater proportion than at any time since the Great Depression. It also explains why so many people like George have joined the ranks of the self-employed.
Yes, a growing number of Americans went out on their own before the recession, but clearly their numbers have vastly increased. While some are happy about their new status, most are worse off than they were before. It's one thing to be a contingent worker in good times and when you're young; quite another in bad times when you're middle-aged.
Still, many would rather view these people as entrepreneurs and owners of startup businesses, and see their major challenge as getting adequate credit. Congress's Joint Economic Committee reported last week that small businesses continue to face tight lending standards. "Small business is the job-creation engine that powers this economy," said Representative Caroline Maloney, the New York Democrat who heads the committee. Democrats will be pushing bills to make loans more available to them.
Indeed, America's startup businesses do need better access to credit. But many entities that look like small new businesses are actually self-employed people who need more than bank loans. They need predictable income and benefits.
For starters, they could use what might be called "earnings insurance" that would pay for up to two years part of the difference between what they earned on the old job and what they earn now on their own. Employed workers would contribute to the insurance fund through their payroll taxes, as they do with unemployment insurance, but the total bill for benefits would be unlikely to rise because earnings insurance would get them back to work quicker and thereby reduce the number of weeks they relied on unemployment benefits.
The self-employed also need more help saving. Since they can no longer depend on tax-free corporate matches to their 401(k)'s or I.R.A.'s, they should be entitled to tax credits that match them. Fortunately, thanks to the reform package passed by Congress, they will have more help getting affordable health care, as they will be able to use their aggregate bargaining power in medical exchanges to push down insurance costs.
New businesses are vital to job growth, and entrepreneurship does fuel the economy. And surely some of America's new independent workers will build their own companies. But when the economy is still so hard on so many, it's important to distinguish between entrepreneurial zeal and self-employed desperation.
This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.
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