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Why Has American Entrepreneurship Dropped? Malcolm Gladwell Blames Agreeableness

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Malcolm Gladwell (left) and Carlos Watson speak onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park, in Manhattan on July 22, 2018 in New York City.(Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Ozy Media)

These days, Malcolm Gladwell is all about disagreeableness.

In conversation with Carlos Watson at OZY Fest on Sunday, Gladwell lauded the trait as a key component of an entrepreneurial spirit. In the psychological context, disagreeableness or agreeableness is the extent to which one requires the approval of a group.

“One of the weird counterintuitive facts about the present day is that entrepreneurship in this country is at a historic low, relative to the last 50 years or so,” Gladwell says on the OZY stage. “The rate of new-business formation in America right now is as low as it’s been since the 1970s.”

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According to research from The Kauffman Foundation, the number of companies younger than one year dropped by nearly 44% between 1978 and 2012. This slump is affecting every industry, even those that the public perceives to be thriving. Despite the incredible technological strides made in the last few decades, new-business formation is dropping across the board. But why? Gladwell thinks it’s because our younger generations are less likely to disregard the suggestions and opinions of their peers.

“Is it possible we are raising a generation of people who are less disagreeable than previous generations? That the effect of all the things we’ve done in good faith to make young people much more aware of and solicitous of each other’s feelings has had the paradoxical effect of making it harder for them to try something truly crazy and weird and innovative?”

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According to the Small Business Administration, research shows that young people are interested in starting new businesses. But interest isn’t enough. There are more factors against Americans trying to be entrepreneurs than just agreeableness. Gladwell sees opportunity, whether it comes in the form of a bank loan or a good education without debilitating student debt, to be bestowed on a select few.

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“The consequence of the rhetoric used to describe success is that we come to think of the qualities of those successful few as being incredibly rare. What’s rare is the resources and the opportunities these people had access to,” says Gladwell. “But the underlying qualities are common. … I think there should be a rule that one day a week, we just don’t talk about billionaires.’

Gladwell notably considers himself to be agreeable, despite his disputatious takes and success as both an innovative author and a podcaster. His podcast Revisionist History, which recently wrapped on season three and consistently reaches the top of the charts, is a force of disruption in a rapidly changing industry. In 2017, 48 million people listened to podcasts weekly and podcasting revenues are growing at double-digit rates. Revisionist History looks at the past to unsettle culture schemas—but Gladwell also wants to ensure a brief respite from current events.

“I don’t make news with my podcast. I’m in the edutainment business,” says Gladwell. “I’m the antidote to the 24-hour news cycle.”

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