Several commentators have recently highlighted the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s finding that the share of U.S adults starting or running a new business increased by 60 percent from 2010 to 2011. While I understand the desire to focus on the positive after so many years of declining entrepreneurial activity in the United States, I’m not sure the GEM results really signal good news about entrepreneurship.
To see why requires an understanding of the difference between the stock of entrepreneurs and the flow into entrepreneurship. Think of entrepreneurship like a bathtub of water. The stock of entrepreneurs is akin to the level of water the in the tub. The flow into entrepreneurship is similar to the amount of water coming through the faucet. Unmeasured in this analogy is the flow out of entrepreneurship, which is like the amount of water going down the drain.
The GEM report indicates that America opened up the entrepreneurship valve on the faucet. Inflow increased by 60 percent from 2010 to 2011. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data says the amount of entrepreneurship in the tub went down. The government agency reported a 2 percent decline in the share of the labor force working for themselves from 2010 to 2011, following an 8.5 percent drop in the self-employment rate between 2006 and 2010.
There’s only one way to reconcile a big jump in the number of people going into business for themselves with a continued decline in the number of people in business for themselves. That’s an increase in the number of people who ran their own companies leaving self-employment. Like the bathtub, we can’t have more water flowing out of the faucet, but a lower water level in the tub, unless more water is going down the drain.
I don’t think we should celebrate the increase in the number of people entering entrepreneurship in 2011. This rise must have been accompanied by an even greater rise in the number of people exiting entrepreneurship.
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