Enterprise, young people and youth policy: an overview

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Sarah Lloyd Jones of the People and Work Unit explores the growing interest in enterprise and highlights some of the different elements in relation to youth policy. She also identifies some key issues.

contents: introduction · individual enterprise · community enterprise · risk · the cultivation of enterprise · conclusion – we are all entrepreneurs now · further reading and references · links

Youth enterprise comprises a range of concepts from, at one end, the promotion of self-employment and the development of businesses through to a focus on young people being ‘enterprising’ and entrepreneurial in their personal and collective actions. The latter usually involves cultivating:

A readiness to embark on new ventures.

The ability to identify opportunities and to plan, develop and implement plans of action.

The capacity to work as part of a team and to communicate with others.

Individual enterprise that promotes self-employment and business ideas is seen as an employment option that can also contribute to the regeneration of an area. Group or collective enterprise usually involves ‘business-like’ activities, such as setting up and running a service like a youth café or magazine which mixes earned income from sales, with subsidies from grants and/or volunteer time. Most youth programmes work in some way to promote personal enterprise or entrepreneurial behaviour in leadership roles and by encouraging a readiness to try out new challenges and grasp opportunities and few organizations working with young people have not learned how to be enterprising in seeking resources.

Individual enterprise

Enterprise is seen as a ‘good’ thing for the individual. In the last decade individual accountability and achievement are have been values reinforced by school and the media (Furlong and Cartmel 1997) and personal enterprise has been given the highest value of all.  It can give scope to creativity, develop individual talents and create employment and wealth. Studies have shown that even where a spell of self-employment is not sustained the experience can be a positive one and leads to a favourable chance of entering employment (Kellard et al. 1998). A study by the Leeds Business School on the Prince’s Trust business start-up programme found that 68 per cent of the businesses studied were surviving and concluded of those that were not:-

Young entrepreneurs felt they had gained a range of skills and built confidence and self-worth. 74 per cent of those whose business ceased trading reported that the experience of running their own business had nevertheless been a positive one. (ERBEDU  2001)

Most people who become self-employed start by using their existing skills and talents, their previous experience and training and the resources they have available in a new way. The danger is that the types of businesses they develop tend to mirror the local economy and where that economy is poor, they are frequently marginal in their viability. Many young people have a perception of self-employment as offering a greater freedom than working for others, and greater rewards. The reality, however, is more usually long hours, little free time and a low wage. In his study of Teeside, MacDonald identified the ‘self-exploitation’ of self-employment, along with the short-term community enterprises set up, as a feature of the poverty of the local job market and young people’s experience of it. Here self-employment is not seen as an alternative to competing in the local job market, but rather a feature of that job market, contributing to its bleakness.Few (interviewees) knew anybody who held down ‘proper jobs’. For them, their friends, their brothers and sisters working life now consisted of a series of marginal activities, short-run community or cooperative ventures, unpaid volunteering, self-exploitative small businesses, low-paid and part-time jobs, risky fiddly jobs and time on government make-work or ‘training’ schemes interspersed with lengthy periods of idle unemployment. They were experiencing first hand the cyclical movements between peripheral, non-standard work and unemployment typical of British labour markets in the 1990s. (MacDonald 1998)

Community enterprise

Enterprise that is ‘business-like’ is also seen as a ‘good’ thing for communities and neighbourhoods because it can lead to the provision of new services, especially those that are marginally viable or commercially non-viable. So a sports centre or day nursery may be developed in an area unattractive to commercial investors through a ‘mixed economy’ approach that combines grant aid, volunteer time, trainee placements, service level agreements with statutory agencies and low rate payments from those using the services. Initiatives such as credit unions and skill-swap schemes have explored ways of retaining wealth within a community but have also expanded concepts of enterprise beyond wealth generation or retention to ‘trading’ commodities such as talents, skills and resources. For example, there are community organizations who have collaborated to ‘trade’ meeting room space for the use of a photocopier, or shared use of a mini-bus.

Youth organizations have moved into community enterprise through initiatives such as internet cafes where time on the internet can be bought at a low cost, subsidized by grants and income from the sale of refreshments. Information and advice projects may draw in statutory services who pay to have access to the young people that the youth group provides. Schools may buy in the services of a youth worker or youth project to provide an alternative curriculum programme for some pupils which, in turn, will subsidies activities for those same young people in the evenings. There are numerous examples of enterprise at individual, group and organizational level. They provide new opportunities but offer real challenges to those working with young people. The key one is realistic sustainability. If those using the service at the beginning cannot afford to pay a realistic fee for it, how will that change? If those funding the service are not willing to do so in the long-term how will the short-fall be met. There are examples of community organizations that have developed viable enterprises that both regenerate the area and are financially viable but they are few and far between and there are many more that fail when the funding dries up.


What all types of enterprise share is an element of risk. By its nature, enterprise involves trying something which, if it succeeds, carries high rewards in personal or organizational satisfaction, wealth creation or service provision but which could fail and leave the individual or organization worse off than before the entrepreneurial venture.  This creates a particular dilemma when enterprise development actions are focused on young people who are least able to manage risk. The Prince’s Trust, for example, targets its enterprise support at young people who are unemployed and disadvantaged. It could be argued that risk of failure for young people who have faced frequent failure in the past, and who have few financial resources or support networks to fall back on is greater than for those who approach self-employment with the qualifications, family support and personal resilience that will help them move swiftly on from any failed business venture. Youth programmes will try, wherever possible, to remove the risk of failure from work with young people since their focus is on reinforcing positive messages and building ability. There is a real distaste for ‘setting young people up to fail’ and taking on enterprise development involves some re-thinking about how to manage risk.

The cultivation of enterprise

In recent years the cultivation of enterprise amongst young people has been seen as an antidote to a feared dependency culture. Between 1980 and the late 1990s there was a steady withdrawal of state welfare support for young adults (Roberts 1995). Part of the stated rationale in introducing these changes was to encourage young people to become more self-reliant and enterprising (Roberts 1995). At the same time positive steps were being taken to encourage enterprise. Schools and training providers developed curricula around ‘enterprise training’. Groups of school pupils were encouraged to model business developments, setting up their own businesses and marketing services or products. The aim was to ensure that they would at least consider the option of self-employment.

There is some evidence that this strategy has worked. The Family and Working Lives Survey (King 1996) showed that in 1994-95 men aged 18-24 years were more likely to be self-employed (3 per cent) than to be on a Government training scheme (2 per cent) and women were as likely (1 per cent on each). Overall self employment rates rose in the final quarter of the twentieth century from 7 to 12 per cent (Office for National Statistics 1997) peaking in 1989 at 13.4 per cent.

At the same time Government funded community regeneration programmes aimed at the poorest communities were taking steps to discourage the development of grant dependent activities. Local strategies were increasingly being required to identify ‘sustainability’ which included income generation and a withdrawal, or at least lessening, of funding. It is common now even for those organizations offering activities and services to the most disadvantaged to be asked how income will be generated by their work.

Conclusion – we are all entrepreneurs now

Being entrepreneurial means looking for chances and opportunities and making the most of them. Youth services and support increasingly expect young people to be decision makers and to make judgements on what steps would be best for them. To be enterprising. Similarly organizations and youth projects must look wider than the service they can offer directly. There is now an expectation that organizations will demonstrate enterprising or entrepreneurial behaviour by, at the very least, forming advantageous alliances and partnerships. There are few organizations or groups that can work to their own, exclusive agenda anymore and still hope to attract funding. The policy moves towards ‘joined up thinking’, linking initiatives and actions to create best value demands an entrepreneurial approach.

Further reading and references

ERBEDU  (2001) Young business start-ups – research into the Prince’s Trust business start-up programme between 1994-1999, Leeds:  Leeds Business School.

Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (1997)  Young People and Social Change – Individualization and risk in late modernity, Buckingham:  Open University Press

Kellard, K and Middleton, S  (1998)  Helping Unemployed People into self-employment.  Centre for Research in Social Policy. London: Department for Education and Employment.

King, S and Murray, K. (1996)  ‘Family and Working Lives Survey: preliminary results’, Labour Market Trends, March, pp. 115-19.

MacDonald, R (1998)  Youth, Transition and Social Exclusion: some issues for youth research in the UK’, Journal of Youth Studies 1(2).

Roberts, K (1995) Youth & Employment in Modern Britain, Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


Enterprise Education: A site developed with the support of the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs through the Australian Government’s Enterprise Education in Schools Programme

Young Enterprise: a national education charity with a mission ‘to inspire and equip young people to learn and succeed through enterprise’. See, also, Young Enterprise Scotland.

© Sarah Lloyd Jones 2002. Last update: July 08, 2014

Last Updated on July 9, 2019 by infed.org