Great Britain, unemployment and the dangerous culture of low aspirations

According to the Financial Times, in a recent global ranking of entrepreneurial nations, the UK has ranked 14th, behind Taiwan, Austria and Belgium – a low ranking considering that the UK is one of the world’s leading global economies. The US, unsurprisingly, ranks first.

Despite having a good number of start ups, quality teams and innovative products, there are a few other pertinent reasons for Britain’s low ranking. The researchers behind the study found that one of these, which I think is very significant, is that British entreprise lacked aspiration and support for aspirations. This basically means that despite trying, it is British attitudes towards entrepreneurship  (which also affects the willingness of family and friends, often crucial to early stage entrepreneurial activity, to invest) which are hindering entrepreneurial growth.

With the economy the way it is, with high levels of unemployment (youth unemployment in particular), and with emerging nations such as Brazil overtaking the UK, it is time for the UK to address its culture of low aspirations.

When I left the UK, the nation of my birth and upbringing, for the US, I was relieved. I was relieved to leave a culture in which success, ambitious and enterprise seemed to be looked down upon or thought of as akin to an illness. I’d always felt the need to downplay my achievements – even to friends – and it got tiresome after a while.

As an adult, I didn’t feel that I could openly admit my aspirations nor really give full flight to my creative and entrepreneurial leanings to the extent that I desired and I was tired of pretending that I wanted nothing more than to be a regular nine-to-fiver with a nice job title. Not that there is anything wrong with that, by the way, but it simply doesn’t suit my personality.

Rather than accepting the traditional British self-deprecating, under-playing-of-oneself as my fate, I left. And I am glad that I did. And I’m not the only one. I regularly meet Brits who have come to these shores for very similar reasons, and according to another study, 46% of British entrepreneurs believe that they need to emigrate in order to achieve the level of success that they aim for.

In New York, especially as a woman and a woman of colour, I find a lot more acceptance for my innately driven and admittedly rebellious ways. Here it’s not weird – it’s cool. It’s not a problem – in fact, it’s welcomed and celebrated. Here I find myself among peers and I continue to be impressed by the women and men that I meet and get to know who are doing particularly well in their lives… Friends and acquaintances who have had envisioned ventures and projects and put them into action. Those who have overcome obstacles and jumped through hoops and over barriers to get to where they are. Those living their dreams. It’s inspiring. It fuels me. I love it.

I realize now that what I was looking for, yet was unable to find, in the UK was an entrepreneurial spirit. The spirit of challenging the status quo, of bringing one’s dreams to life. The UK has a very strong artistic slant – London is more certainly one of the world’s leading hubs of art, fashion, music and theatre. Yet, somehow that’s been seen as distinct from being entrepreneurial even though I believe that much of the same creatively destructive thinking that fuels art also fuels business. Of course, the UK is also the home of the extraordinarily entrepreneurial Richard Branson – but people like him, with that kind of thinking, are not all that common – certainly not in the mainstream.

I’ve been entrepreneurial since I was young, before I’d ever heard the word “entrepreneur” or knew what business was. I saw things that were missing, services I could provide and I provided them. Young kids need tutoring for their exams? Sure, I can do that. £25 per hour please. Thanks, said my 16 year old self! Small businesses requiring admin assistants on an ad-hoc basis? Sure, I know where to find the people for that. Let’s do it, said my 20-something year old self. Music industry business news for those in the growing urban music industry? Sure, I’ll start a site and sell some ad space, do listings and networking events (which I did before blogs and sites were trendy – I learned HTML coding and everything).

It’s just the way I think. Where there’s a missing and I can fill it, I do. I get to be creative, to learn, to grow as a human being, to take some risks, to bring a vision to reality and to go on an adventure. It’s really not just about business, but an approach to life itself – a worldview that says “I can bring things alive that haven’t been there previously, and provide something for people, and add value, and live life on my own terms”. I was longing for that in the UK. I found it in America.

There are many reasons why I believe this is the case. While some believe that an entrepreneurial attitude is an innate characteristic, I think that cultural and societal values also have a lot to do with it. The UK has a much more deeply entrenched and fixed sense of class and status quo than the US does, which espouses freedom, social mobility and by extension, ambition, aspiration and reaching ones goals as an inherent part of the American way.

In a traditional, less fluid, more class-rigid society, aspiration – which fuels entrepreneurship, whether it be the aspiration to make a difference, to simply make lots of money or a bit of both – has little place. What is the point of aspiring to something when social mobility is stagnant? What exactly would you be aspiring to when you have been conditioned to believe that you will die in the same socio-economic status in which you are born (which is of course great if you are already well-off)? What exactly is the incentive?

However, with the economy with the way it is now, no longer can this culture of low aspirations continue en masse. There is an increasing need for an entrepreneurial attitude in Britain. There is a need to recreate the UK as an entrepreneurial economy especially as unemployment is on the rise, and young people are bearing the brunt of it. Young people should be being encouraged to think creatively, to think entrepreneurially and to see how they can make their ideas commercially viable, in order not only to make money but to develop themselves as leaders and masters of their own destinies.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who this year launched the nationwide Business In You campaign with the aim of fostering entrepreneurship, is making some effort but what he needs to work on is the very fabric of British attitudes.

A lack of aspiration has significant social implications, since it influences and impacts policy. If you have a society which expects its citizens to downplay themselves, this will definitely come through in teaching, parenting, and policy which all in turn reinforce the same attitude. Aspirations affect actions.

The US’s JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business StartUps) Act, signed into law by President Obama on April 5th, is a key example of how the attitude toward entrepreneurship affects policy. This act loosens investment regulations for small businesses and makes it easier for small businesses to grow, in order to stimulate the economy, and I would also argue, allow for greater human potential to be unleashed. It also, of course, highlights the importance with which entrepreneurship in America is treated as something which should be accessible to as many people as possible.

Steve Case – one of the key proponents of the JOBS Act and a co-founder of AOL – has written: “…from my perspective the story of America is the story of entrepreneurs taking risks to build companies and jumpstart entire industries.  That’s why the United States is the leading economy in the world.   It didn’t happen by accident ­ it was the work of entrepreneurs.” I would agree.

People should not feel that they need to leave the UK in order to achieve their goals. Any society should encourage its citizens to make the most of themselves. Sure, not all will choose to start a business, but the can-do, creative, opportunity-focused, value-adding attitude that make up an entrepreneurial mindset is certainly a good start.