This article originally appeared at Harvard Business Review
The year was 1995.
Tom Hanks was awarded an Oscar for Forrest Gump, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” was number one on Billboard, and a young undergraduate named Monica Lewinsky began a summer internship at the White House.
Elsewhere, Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City, three years of war in the Balkans came to an end, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double homicide, and the World Trade Organization was formally launched on New Year’s Day.
A lot has changed since then—the iPhone, Tivo, the Toyota Prius, Google, Facebook, YouTube, human genome sequencing, GPS navigation, Skype, mobile broadband, just to name a few.
And yet, despite all of that change and memories of historic events that now seem ever distant, America’s business sector might be less dynamic than ever. That’s the major takeaway of research I co-authored with Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution and published this week. The evidence is pretty overwhelming.
Our research documents a steady rise in economic activity occurring in mature firms during the last two decades, and declining in new, young, and medium-aged firms, or what we dub “The Other Aging of America.” Mature firms (those aged 16 years or more) comprised 34 percent of U.S. businesses in 2011—up from 23 percent in 1992, for an increase of half in just under two decades.
The situation is more pronounced with employment. By our estimate, about three-quarters of private-sector employees and nearly 80 percent of total employees (private + public) work for organizations born prior to 1995. This is especially remarkable considering the volume of product innovations and household-name businesses that have emerged in the last two decades.
Further, we found that the aging of the business sector during this period has been universal across the American economy—occurring in every state and metropolitan area, in every firm size category, and in each broad industrial sector.
The evidence suggests that a decline in entrepreneurship is playing a major role; perhaps the largest. As we and others demonstrated in previous research, the rate of new firm formation has fallen by half during the last three decades, and has contributed to the decline of American “business dynamism”—the productivity-enhancing process of firm and worker churn. Fewer firm births means fewer young and medium-aged firms. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic.
Compounding this, we document a sharp uptick in early-stage firm failure rates and believe it might be playing an increasing role over time. The failure rate of firms aged one year—the youngest firms in our data outside of freshly launched ones—increased from a low of 16 percent in 1991 but rose steadily and persistently to reach 27 percent by 2011. It is possible that the increased likelihood of failure in the first year is holding back would-be entrepreneurs from forming businesses at all. In the last decade, failure rates have also increased for all firm age categories except for one—mature firms, where failure rates have held steady.
In short, fewer firms are being born, and those that are born are increasingly likely to fail very early on, as are firms that survive into young- and medium-aged years. Those that are old, on the other hand, tend to persist, allowing them to constitute a larger share of economic activity in the United States over time.
Somewhat surprisingly, we were unable to find evidence of a direct link between business consolidation and an aging firm structure. Though we do find a substantial rise in consolidation during the last few decades—confirming the widely suspected belief—it doesn’t appear to be a major contributor to business aging specifically, which has been occurring across all firm size classes, and most of all in the smallest of businesses. If business consolidation were a driving factor, we wouldn’t expect this to be the case.
This leaves some questions unanswered and some future areas for research—most notably the cause of declining business formation. But whatever the reason, our research clearly establishes that it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, particularly an entrenched one, and less advantageous to be a new and young competitor—regardless of business size, location, or broad industry group.