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Finding Saviour in a Startup

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Where are we now, and where are we going? Twenty or fifteen years ago we could rely on mainstream institutions to answer these questions for us. Westminster, Fleet Street, Big Business - they told us what the good life really meant, and how to live it. Yet fast forward to 2013 and these are no longer the bedrocks of society; their legitimacy sapping in the wake of perpetual scandals, their decline accelerated by the worst economic crash in a century.

In response we have witnessed the emergence of global movements such as Occupy, whose worldwide protests have brought into sharp relief the anger of those who feel dispossessed and let down by the system - one they'd been led to believe would work for them. These collectives have become a voice for the young, but also the disabled, the unemployed and many others at the margins of society. Russell Brand's recent appearances are just the latest in this long line of protest commentary, saying in public what many are thinking in private.

A common mistake would be to assume that this is where the backlash stops. In reality, it's just the sharp end of a very thick wedge. A less obvious but arguably more powerful means of expression is now sweeping the UK - namely in the form of entrepreneurship. If protest is about tearing the system down by any means, entrepreneurship is about making the existing one work to your own advantage. 100 years ago we may have done this by joining a church, 50 years ago it could have been a trade union, 20 years ago a charity - now it's by starting a business. It's the ultimate form of DIY change-making.

I'm not just talking about social enterprises here. Using business as a vehicle for improving the lives of others is of course an important trend. But what I'm really getting at are the growing numbers of people using business to take control of their own lives; to find meaning and purpose that can no longer be provided by once stalwart institutions. Indeed, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 80 per cent of all new entrepreneurs find their work meaningful, compared to 55 per cent of private sector employees. Little wonder that close to 400,000 more people have become self-employed since 2010, and that start-up rates among young people have doubled in the past few years alone.

The obvious retort? It's the great recession, stupid. When people can't find a job, they're liable to create their own with a new business - so forget the meaning mumbo-jumbo. Yet this is a superficial understanding of a deeply complex phenomenon. Yes, unemployment is a key factor, but it is by no means the sole cause. As my colleague Adam Lent argues, entrepreneurial intentions are like a spring waiting to be released, wound ever tightly by a workforce looking for a more purposeful way of living. The economic downturn was simply the trigger releasing these passions. And once pulled, I believe it will be difficult to undo.

Nor is it just the recession that is releasing pent up entrepreneurship. Another phenomenon that has occurred almost simultaneously to the economic crash is the proliferation of new technologies. Wordpress, Ebay and Etsy - to name but a few - are radically reducing the costs of running a business. And by doing so they are making visible what was arguably always there. Likewise, new platforms for the 'sharing economy', such as Airbnb and Sidecar, are opening up entrepreneurship to the masses, allowing people to sell everything from a week in their spare room to a short ride in their car. No longer do you need a shop front to get going in business; just a laptop, a kitchen table and a few hundred pounds.

What we're seeing right now is entrepreneurship spreading to the margins. Forget Richard Branson and Alan Sugar. Today's entrepreneurs have a much more human story to tell. It's the long-term unemployed person starting up their own gardening firm on the New Enterprise Allowance. It's the carer creating a business from home to give them the flexibility to look after their loved one. It's the person suffering from mental illness selling items on online marketplaces to build up their confidence. It's the middle-aged freelancer spinning out a business from a corporation, the deadening bureaucracy and hierarchy of which they can no longer put up with.

Yes, all of these activities bring in money. But they also bring in a shed load of meaning, an ability to express yourself and an opportunity to make your mark. No wonder that William Deresiewicz wrote that today's "cultural hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur." No doubt the message of the 21st century is set to be a blunt one: make your own way in life, because no one is going to do it for you. But, perhaps unexpectedly, people of all shapes and sizes are proving that they can rise to the challenge.

Today the RSA and Etsy launch a new project, The Power of Small, which will explore the rise of microbusinesses in the UK. Click here to find out more.