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Born between 1981 and 1997, millennials will soon represent the largest generation in the United States.1 Although Jean Twenge2 describes millennials as “Generation Me,” young adults face a more complicated labor force than their older counterparts. In the United States, an economic downturn, along with student loan debt, may prohibit young people from participating in certain activities. While 7.6 percent of the Gen X population and 8.3 percent of the baby boomers are self-employed, less than 2 percent of millennials were self-employed in 2014.3 This is unfortunate because the OECD4 suggests that entrepreneurship is one way to bring young people into the labor market.

While the reasons for not engaging in entrepreneurship are interesting and worth investigating in the current economic climate, my work concentrates on people who have pursued entrepreneurial activity. We need to better understand the causes, and what happens after young people take part in entrepreneurship.

Source: MaxPixel

The young entrepreneurs’ use of technology and social networking sites is particularly interesting to me. There’s a body of work that addresses social media as a tool to instruct millennials, including extensive research on how to market to this group.5 However, less is known about how millennial entrepreneurs conduct business and use social media as a tool to generate social capital. I decided to focus on LinkedIn, a platform associated with job seeking, but is also expanding in scope. On LinkedIn, individuals build a network of social connections, but is this the same as generating social capital?

To further explore this topic, I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 26 millennial entrepreneurs. These innovators work in sectors from agriculture to technology, across 11 U.S. states including Montana, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

According to a study of small-business owners, 47 percent of entrepreneurs report not using social media for their businesses due to a lack of perceived value, while 18 percent attributed non-use to a lack of information about the functionality and use of these sites.6 Millennials are often regarded as digital natives, and the stereotype is that they use social media constantly. Most participants in my study (24 of 26) have adopted LinkedIn, but some of the young entrepreneurs in my study do not see value in using the platform. For instance, a 25-year-old woman whose agricultural-based business is in the nascent stage stated, “I did not think it was the best place to network, for me.” She also explained how Facebook and Instagram had a better return on her (time) investment. Others also expressed this sentiment; they are self-described nonactive users of LinkedIn.

Conversely, some participants echoed the stories of Mark Granovetter whose pioneering work on social capital identified that strong ties help us get by while weak ties help us get ahead. Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” emphasizes how individuals use their weak ties to obtain employment.7 One entrepreneur, a 34-year-old whose technology company had not yet launched prior to the interview, used his second level connections on LinkedIn to obtain a job, which was necessary to bootstrap his current venture. Comparatively, others explained using their second and third level connections to locate vendors, experts, and general industry advice.

Here we see young innovators harnessing LinkedIn equally as a social network, along with a tool for information retrieval and curation. While adoption or non-adoption of LinkedIn is not an interesting phenomenon, whether a young entrepreneur used the platform frequently, leveraging it by conducting research and advanced networking, is an interesting line of inquiry that should be explored further.

Jenna Grzeslo is an assistant professor in Digital Media and Journalism at SUNY New Paltz. She earned a Ph.D. from the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University in 2018. Grzeslo was in the inaugural cohort of the UNESCO Fellows Program. She has been recognized for her work, including participating in PTC’s 2017 Young Scholar Program and winning the Yale M. Braunstein Student Prize Award at PTC’18.

[1] Fry, R. (2016). Millennials overtake baby boomers as America’s largest generation. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

[2] Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled–and more miserable than ever before. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Wilmoth, D. (2016). The missing Millennial entrepreneurs. U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy. Retrieved from https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/advocacy/Millenial_IB.pdf

[4] Green, F. (2013). Youth entrepreneurship. OECD. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/cfe/leed/youth_bp_finalt.pdf

[5] Beauchamp, M. B., & Barnes, D. C. (2015). Delighting baby boomers and millennials: Factors that matter most. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 23 (3), 338-350. doi:10.1080/10696679.2015.1032472

[6] Finkelstein, B. (2010). Small businesses are not social media savvy. Origination News, 19 (8), 17-n/a. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/228092933?accountid=13158

[7] Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (1), 1360-1380.

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