The graduating class of 2020 is entering into an economy in tatters. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered vast swathes of our economic life, almost certainly plunging the country into a severe recession and putting 22 million Americans out of work in just a few weeks. As we manage the ongoing crisis to try and stanch the bleeding both in human and economic terms, the post-graduation plans of an entire generation of college students have suddenly been thrown up in the air. Job offers have been rescinded. Hiring has been put on hold. Businesses have closed their doors. And how can our newly-minted grads compete with now out-of-work professionals with fifteen years of experience?
This is a problem, and it’s one we’re still in the middle of solving. The 2008 financial crisis forever changed the career market; what came before never really returned after the collapse, with it giving rise to the decentralized and unprotected “gig economy” of Ubers and Taskrabbits and Postmates. So the question right now is if zoomers are staring down the same path as their older millennial siblings, cobbling together a freelance income or building up a side hustle to make ends meet, and living in precarious financial straits that have delayed marriage, child rearing, and homeownership until later in life.
But there is another option available to zoomers: entrepreneurship.
As someone who started her own business in her mid-twenties, I may be biased, but the experience of the Great Recession offers a number of critical object lessons to young adults striking out on their own in precarious, uncertain times. While millennials ended up divided into a handful of tech startup millionaires and everyone else, we’re fortunate that the startup bubble popped in the months preceding the pandemic because it means that there’s more investment money out there than ever before at a time when investors are looking for lower-risk, smaller, sustainable businesses rather than supposedly world-changing moonshots like WeWork and AirBnB, which are in a state of near collapse, or Theranos, which famously crumbled under the weight of overhyping and under-engineering. In a risk-averse market, slow and steady wins the race.
With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at three areas that desperately need problem solvers and hold potential entrepreneurship opportunities for young go-getters who want to build something of their own.
Health and Technology
This cannot be overstated. The pandemic is going to have lasting ramifications, for at least the next decade, in how we take care of ourselves and others. The ventilator shortage has exposed critical gaps in our manufacturing capacity, gaps that a savvy entrepreneur can move in to fill, producing components currently hard to source domestically. We’re also going to be seeing more of a drive for advanced thermal scans and protective gear to help keep the virus contained once the pandemic itself has passed. That means there’s a huge opening now for the development of sophisticated health technologies that can be deployed on a business and consumer level to a market in need of keeping everyone safe.
One of the biggest effects of this pandemic has been exposing critical bottlenecks in our ability to move goods and services during an ongoing crisis. From growth to packaging to distribution, we’re seeing the many ways our food pipeline can be disrupted; with restaurants closing, many farmers are left with no option but to destroy crops while not insignificant percentages of the food we eat are put in jeopardy with the closing of individual packaging plants (as their workers are forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the gears turning). And while we haven’t experienced food shortages, and aren’t anticipated to, I suspect that the post-pandemic world is going to be more skeptical about this entire process. How do we move food more efficiently, how do we eliminate food waste, and as the pandemic moves in waves and clusters amid varied response strategies, do we need to reevaluate moving food long distances, even domestically? These kinds of questions need answers, which creates a huge opening for people who want to move into agriculture. Someone who shows up to an investor with a plan for production, distribution, and (critically) supply maintenance and stability of needed food and other goods on the regional level is going to find a much more receptive audience than they would have even six months ago.
Logistics and Coordination
A month and more into lockdown, one of the most fascinating and commented-upon developments has been the rise of working from home and the newfound cultural prevalence of Zoom meetings. But so much of that discussion has centered on office workers when there are so many other opportunities. Experienced sewers with machines at home can make masks, clothing, and other fabric supplies; programmers can code from their couches; woodworkers, when suitably equipped, can cut and sand and join from their own backyards or garages.
That strikes me as an untapped reservoir of opportunity for an enterprising young person: how do you connect all these workers with the enterprises that need their labor? And how do you make it worth it? Whether it’s a technology solution or an organizational one, someone is going to be the genius who manages to turn the homebound gig economy into a coordinated powerhouse, and it might as well be you!
At-Home Social Entertainment
With so many of us stuck at home and facing a future of periodic lockdowns for perhaps years to come, entertainment has become a necessity. Sure, we all have Netflix, but there’s only so much TV you can watch in a day before you start to long for something a little more personable. Couples and families and roommates are turning, like never before, to boardgames, which are in the middle of a historic boom. Board games, card games, and other activities people under lockdown can share with other human beings are surging as people struggle to pass the time and not go stir crazy. And while there will always be mainstays like Scrabble and Monopoly, there is so much room for growth: puzzles, coloring books for both kids and adults, and tabletop role-playing games (think “Dungeons & Dragons”) were already healthy cottage industries that can now expect to see their products assume a much larger place in the American household.
These are just a few of the opportunities emerging as the pandemic reshapes daily life and the economy for the duration. There are certainly countless more for the diligent and attentive to discover. They may not be as flashy as a hot internet startup with a billion-dollar exit strategy, but those are going the way of the dodo anyway. Instead, you have the opportunity to build something that will last.
Now is the time to invest in your future.