One of the greatest brakes on people’s success is their lack of social capital. I have seen this in action at the university where I teach. The students who come in knowing how to start businesses, seek internships and network have a huge advantage over those who haven’t been given those skills or exposed to those ideas earlier.
It’s a question of familiarity. Even if the university were to start teaching students about entrepreneurship and financial management, it is too late for most. By university, those young people are way ahead, who were, as children consistently exposed to those foundational principles of business and money as part of the fascinating puzzles of everyday life. For the students who have know them since childhood, those principles will have critically shaped and coloured the way they view the world. Rather than seeing commerce as forbidding, they see it as an opportunity.
We live in a commercial world. The market and business make most of the things that we do, the services we use and the jobs we get happen in Canada. Whether it is directly, through commerce, or indirectly through the tax revenues generated through commerce.
To understand commerce and business and entrepreneurship at an early age allows kids to have a critical look at the business and services they encounter at an early age. When they go to a restaurant, rather than just buying a sandwich, sitting down an eating it, they could look at the product, the location, the furnishings in the store, the quality of the materials and the service and start deducing what the restaurant’s business model might be.
This is an entirely different way of viewing the world. All of a sudden, even the mundane experience of buying a hot dog from a street stand becomes a puzzle: is this a good location? How many hotdogs does this stand move? How could performance be improved?
I was extremely fortunate to have been born into a family where business, entrepreneurship and finances were discussed openly and cheerfully, even if the news was sometimes bad. We discussed how to turn a chance to spend money at a store into a way that one could make money, if one could buy the product more cheaply elsewhere and resell it for a profit. We talked about how restaurant eating was vastly more expensive and often lower quality than a much cheaper home-cooked meal.
Not only is this knowledge practical, it turns what would otherwise seem like a world of closed doors into a world of challenges, puzzles and opportunities.
The problem is that many families do not have the knowledge and experience of business, entrepreneurship and finance to pass on to their kids. If we really want to make a serious dent in Canada’s alleged productivity gap, I think the real answer is simple: make commercial awareness a part of the curriculum from junior kindergarten until the end of university. This should not replace reading the classics, learning mathematics and music, or science or practicing drama and public speaking. Rather, business should be a literacy taught alongside these other literacies. Even if they chose not to become business people, they will understand the workings of the world in which they live and work.
In our capitalist society, teaching little kids about business, entrepreneurship and financial literacy is the greatest and most empowering gift of social capital we could give to the next generation, bar none.