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Generation Y

Young And Rich: Successful Entrepreneurs In A Success-Driven Society

I presented at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation conference last week. The law field is one of those 'at risk' professions, as fewer young adults are pursuing law school today to become entrepreneurs or pursue careers in technology.Many of America's businesses aren't taking the generation gap in the workforce very seriously, expecting that young adults will eventually come to grips with reality and settle into jobs at reputable companies that offer stability and great benefits packages.

I presented at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation conference last week. The law field is one of those 'at risk' professions, as fewer young adults are pursuing law school today to become entrepreneurs or pursue careers in technology.Many of America's businesses aren't taking the generation gap in the workforce very seriously, expecting that young adults will eventually come to grips with reality and settle into jobs at reputable companies that offer stability and great benefits packages.The fact is, 465,000 new businesses are started in the U.S. every month – and the vast majority of those businesses are started by young professionals under the age of 40.At the ABA conference, I received the same question that I get at every other conference when I speak: Are these business start-ups successful? Not every young entrepreneur can succeed — there's certain to be a high number of failures, right?In truth, I have yet to be able to find the number of failed start-ups, but evidence of successful start-ups is everywhere, indicating that today's entrepreneurs are more business savvy, more likely to take on risk, and more confident than prior generations.In the past, going into business for yourself was considered risky, at best. In the past, stable careers at reputable companies were preferred.But we are rapidly becoming a nation of entrepreneurs. Our success-driven society is now focused on the pursuit of happiness and values innovation, independence, and work-life balance. As a result, we’re seeing more entrepreneurs succeed and at a younger age.BusinessWeek recently published its list of America’s Best Entrepreneurs 2008, an impressive list of moguls ages 25 and under. The current credit crunch and ailing economy hasn’t deterred these businesses – in fact, BusinessWeek received a record number of nominations this year.The list includes:

  • Daniel Negari, 22, who started Beverly Hills Mint, a high-end real estate finance business brokering commercial and residential loans worth $5 million or more. The company took in $650,000 in 2007.
  • Johnny Earle, 26, who turned his skill creating iconic T-shirts into a rapidly expanding company, Johnny Cupcakes, with locations in Los Angeles and Boston and overseas distribution. Last year's sales hit $2.29 million, and Earle expects revenue to jump to $3.75 million this year.
  • Jasmine Lawrence, 17, a high school senior who landed deals with Wal-Mart and Whole Foods to carry her line of natural cosmetics. Lawrence started Eden Body Works in to offer alternatives to chemical products after a bad experience with a hair relaxer.
  • Richard Ludlow, 22, who started New York's Academic Earth, an online hub for videos of university lectures and other educational content which makes academic material widely available online so as to lower the cost of education around the world.

In many cases, today’s young entrepreneurs aren't starting a company right away—they're starting a Web site and seeing if it works. The Internet has become the great equalizer, and a tremendous tool for start-up businesses.

Television shows like The Donny Deutsch ShowThe Apprentice, and Hell's Kitchen are focused on business success at a young age.James Sun made it within one spot of winning Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," having been chosen from thousands of applicants nationwide to compete on the hit reality show. Sun was already a millionaire when he appeared on the show. He built a portfolio worth $2.3 million by the time he graduated from college.

Now 30 and living in Seattle, he is the founder and CEO of, a Web 2.0 site that offers a social search engine to help people connect both online and offline.

This isn’t get an American phenomenon, either. The Austailian Business Review Weekly (BRW) publishes its Young Rich List featuring the 100 richest people under the age of 40. The minimum net wealth required for inclusion on the list is $20 million and its members must be 40 or under without having inherited money.Editor John Stensholt expects many more Gen Ys (under-26) to join the list, thanks in part to their confidence in their own abilities. He refers to Y as “fearless young entrepreneurs" who are “very, very confident in their own abilities.”The BRW list for 2008 included: Greg Coffey, 37, founder of anti-spyware software manufacturer PC Tools; and Nigel and Tania Austin, who started the retail chain Cotton On.

And if you want your children to start learning the lessons of running a business, check out the book, Young Bucks: How to Raise a Future Millionaire.

It seems the trend towards entrepreneurialism is here to stay.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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