Youth and the ‘enterprise culture’: forgetting the lessons of the 1980s?

Written by Team. Posted in News

‘Now’ can feel a lot like ‘then’ – the 1980s – with young people urged to ‘raise their aspirations’, take ‘responsibility’ and grasp the challenge of ‘enterprise’; all in a political context of high youth unemployment and drastic ‘reforms’ to welfare entitlements. Again we hear calls for ‘a nation of young entrepreneurs’. In this guest blog post, Robert MacDonald reflects more critically on the lessons we might learn from research in the 1980s about youth and ‘the enterprise culture’.

I didn’t realize how much it can kill you. We were absolutely shattered. It was just a nightmare. I used to be seething that we were up to our eyeballs in so much debt…I used to cry all the time, worried what we would do if we closed down, how we would survive. (Belinda, 24, Hartlepool, previously self-employed, 1989)

In the wake of rolling recessions it seems that now more than ever we need that ethic of success to lead the nation out of austerity. The fostering of young people’s business initiatives has attracted considerable and consistently favourable media coverage often based on the assumption that entrepreneurial ambitions are unequivocally good. (Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, May, 2013)

Twenty-five years ago, as part of an ESRC research programme, I interviewed around 100 young women and men – from Teesside, North East England – about their experiences of ‘the enterprise culture’. All were some way along the journey of self-employment: planning to start-up, currently trading or looking back on closed businesses – as was the case with Belinda, above. I wrote the book – Risky Business? Youth and the  Enterprise Culture – with Frank Coffield, (published in 1991) and also published further articles based on this project.

One spur to this blog was another by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn who recently charted the rise of schemes and programmes to inculcate the entrepreneurial ethic in young people. Indeed, the UK government has recently launched its ‘New Enterprise Allowance’; a scheme with almost exactly the same aims and package of support as the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS) of the 1980s, in which virtually all my interviewees participated. Biressi and Nunn outline how ‘entrepreneurship’ is once again ‘promoted as an economic necessity… [as] part of the wider push to re-boot the nation’s economy in keeping with the usual neoliberal beliefs in competition as the driver of wealth … neo-liberalism is … also a social model which insists that we are the authors of our own lives and the architects of our own destinies’. There are many excellent recent examples that interrogate how young people’s ‘aspirations’ and ‘choices’ are (mis)understood under neoliberalism (see, for instance, Lisa Whittaker’s insight into the classed and gendered nature of unemployed young women’s views of celebrity ‘role models’). It is difficult, however, to think of a purer example of the supposed ‘neoliberal project of the self’ than young people electing to ‘become their own boss’.

selfemployed scrabble

Risky Business? was probably the first serious, qualitative interrogation of young people’s encounters with ‘the enterprise culture’. What lessons can we learn from it?

  • ‘Neoliberalism’ was much less used in the late 1980s, as a label for the social, economic and political character and condition of the UK. Nevertheless, this was the high water mark of the Thatcherite ideology that pitted ‘the enterprise culture’ against the social and economic drag of ‘dependency culture’. Welfare entitlements were rolled back (especially for youth), the jobless were cajoled to get on their bikes and, if no jobs were to be had, the young unemployed in particular were told to be enterprising and create their own.
  • Participants had very limited political interest in any of this. The Thatcherite discourse of ‘enterprise’ barely touched them, beyond their practical encounters with a burgeoning industry of state agencies and charities that had sprung up, attracted by multi-million pound government grants to deliver ‘the enterprise culture’. Entrepreneurial ‘role models’ were rarely cited. If pushed, Richard Branson was sometimes mentioned (who, in 2011 against the backdrop of rising youth unemployment, called again for a ‘nation of young entrepreneurs’).


  • Motivations were more prosaic: a vague sense that ‘being your own boss’ was attractive and/ or the negative push of high unemployment rates. Typically, interviewees had churned around training schemes, unemployment and crap jobs before ending up on the EAS. One of saddest cases was Malcolm. He had circulated through an alphabet soup of government schemes: YTS, JIG, YWS, CP, ET and others. He had been in ‘business’ for a few weeks when I met him: offering advice and consultancy to unemployed people – about how best to cope with being unemployed. He had not yet had any customers.
  • Businesses were typically service sector ‘micro-firms’ that traded on informal skills or hobbies. Bicycle repairs, clothes design, bespoke knitwear, hairdressing, picture-framing, photography and beauty therapy were popular options.
  • Because of how participants were recruited, the research could not measure ‘success rates’ (one recent survey estimated that after three years, two-thirds of businesses run by young people have failed). It did offer a three-fold typology of the experience of the people interviewed: ‘runners, fallers and plodders’.
    • A handful were ‘runners’. They were, or seemed likely to be, successful. At least one of these – a designer clothes shop – is still going, twenty five years later. Family, social, cultural and financial capital seemed helpful here (e.g. having parents ‘in the business’ or who could provide loans).
    • Most interviewed were ‘plodders’ at the time: emotionally committed to the businesses that were drastically under-capitalized, unprofitable and precarious. Mostly, interviewees had no business training or experience. They survived by undercutting the prices of other local firms and by extreme self-exploitation: working very long hours for no or very low pay (subsidised, for instance, by free ‘bed and board’ from parents). Lillian (22) captured this reality well:

I’m just keeping my head above water. I mean, I’d love to be Richard Branson and the rest but you have to be realistic… you’re never going to be a millionaire, like a big movie star. It’s easier if you come to terms with that. I just see it [self-employment] as keeping my head above water.

    • Most of the ‘plodders’ seemed likely to become ‘fallers’. These were those whose businesses had closed because of mounting debts (sometimes incurring legal bankruptcy), sheer exhaustion and a growing realization that there really was never much chance of success. After all, just how many mobile beauticians or free-lance photographers can a local economy support?

Closed out of business - 2

I’ll finish with the words of Lynne, a 28 year-old single mother, whose fruit and vegetable market stall had failed. Hopefully her story provides some balance to the shiny words, fake promises and renewed clamour for a ‘youth enterprise culture’; to claims that ‘entrepreneurial ambitions are unequivocally good’. Lynne reflected on her time self-employed at the end of the 1980s:

 It was something I had to try. I was going nowhere … I wanted to climb. I wanted self-esteem. Looking back, it’s been totally the opposite. I’d had two relationships that’d failed. My life has been a failure since leaving college to now. I needed something to succeed. As it happens, I failed in that too. Perhaps I’m just a born failure! But at least I’ve had the experience. I haven’t just sat back moaning on the dole. I’ve tried to get out of the poverty trap. Fine, it didn’t work but … Now, a year later, I have £10,000 debt, rising with interest …  I’ve had the County Sheriff on my doorstep with a Possession Order. Because he was a nice chap and he saw I had a kid, he left the furniture … I’m between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea … I’m stuck, just waiting for the axe to fall … I’ve went through hell mentally with it. Strait-jacket time. St. Nicks’ here I come…


About the author

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University. His research interests span sociology, criminology, social policy and youth studies. He has been principal or co-investigator on a series of ESRC and JRF funded studies that comprise the Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion. He has written books and articles about youth, social exclusion, poverty and worklessness. Most recently, with co-authors, he has published Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain (2012, Policy Press).


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