America has a major challenge incorporating millennials into our national economy because globalization has transformed the nature of work. Imagine being a millennial who graduated in June of 2008 at the height of the Great Recession. These young Americans are now 28- and 29 years old, and many have been flailing around for years, unable to get a secure hand-hold on the economy.
We used to tell our kids, and ourselves, that if you go to college there will be a good job waiting for you. Now we have college graduates — and even people with graduate degrees — who cannot find the bottom rung of the career ladder.
It's like what former President Bill Clinton said about the Obama economic recovery recently in Raleigh, N.C.: "Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America" that the president painted in his State of the Union address and "they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives."
Many millennials are in the "gig" economy, working freelance to pay the bills, loaded up with student debt. Not surprisingly, they are skeptical about the American dream. In fact, this spring, a Harvard University survey reported that 51 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 "do not support capitalism." In addition, this very age cohort just became the largest population cluster in the U.S. according to the Pew Research Center.
For those trying to understand the allure of Bernie Sanders to the young, this should explain it to you. But what millennials need is not Karl Marx's Das Capital on their e-reader — what they need is a bridge into today's new, global economy.
How do we build that bridge for millennials, and harvest not only their energy but their innovation and decades of work to come? The answer lies in the most important driver not only of our economy but also of America's net new job growth: small business ownership.
Many baby boomers have spent a lifetime building a business and are now looking to sell. Experts say 20 percent of existing small businesses are looking for a buyer. Your local dry cleaner, niche manufacturer, restaurant or landscaping firm might be throwing off a steady stream of annual revenue. These viable small businesses represent a bridge for a young person to walk right into America's Main Street economy.
Home ownership used to be the way we incorporated newcomers into the American dream. It's time for us to realize that buying a small business can have similar beneficial properties for individuals, families and communities. One thing is for certain, millennials who become small business owners won't have much time to debate socialism versus capitalism. They will be too busy growing their business, serving their customers, and taking care of their families.
But to give millennials that glide path to small business ownership we need to make some important changes. Right now most millennials don't have the personal assets to collateralize a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. The SBA needs to evolve and respond to the needs of young people; both political parties need to prioritize this issue.
Parents, educators, academia and the larger society also need to change the messages we send the young. It is truly startling that the very concept of buying an existing small business is virtually absent from most U.S. business schools. It's time to tell graduates of community colleges and four-year universities that they actually have another option other than launching a high risk startup or getting a job in a major city. They can buy an existing small business with a stable revenue.
We know there will be a massive historic transfer of wealth over the next 30 years, estimated at $30 trillion, and an important slice of that wealth is small businesses. We need to use this unique moment to ensure that America's largest living generation, our young people and our pride and joy, have a chance to buy into our way of life and economy by becoming leaders of small businesses.
Sharon Heaton is a corporate attorney who has sold businesses worth $7,000 and those worth $12 billion. She worked previously as senior counsel for the Senate Banking Committee and deputy staff director and general counsel for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.