“You’ve got rising market power,” said Marshall Steinbaum, an economist at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank. “In general, that makes it hard for new businesses to compete with incumbents. Market power is the story that explains everything.”
That argument comes at a potent political moment. Populists on both the left and right have responded to growing public unease about the corporate giants that increasingly dominate their online and offline lives. Polling data from Gallup and other organizations shows a long-running decline in confidence in banks and other big businesses — a concern not likely to abate after high-profile data breaches at Equifax and other companies.
The start-up slump has far-reaching implications. Small businesses in general are often cited as an exemplar of economic dynamism. But it is start-ups — and particularly the small subset of companies that grow quickly — that are key drivers of job creation and innovation, and have historically been a ladder into the middle class for less-educated workers and immigrants.
Perhaps most significant, start-ups play a critical role in making the economy as a whole more productive, as they invent new products and approaches, forcing existing businesses to compete or fall by the wayside.
“Across the decades, young companies are really the heavy hitters and the consistent hitters in terms of job creation,” said Arnobio Morelix, an economist at the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit in Kansas City, Mo., that studies and promotes entrepreneurship.
The start-up decline might defy expectations in the age of Uber and “Shark Tank.” But however counterintuitive, the trend is backed by multiple data sources and numerous economic studies.
In 1980, according to the Census Bureau data, roughly one in eight companies had been founded in the past year; by 2015, that ratio had fallen to fewer than one in 12. The downward trend cuts across regions and industries and, at least since 2000, includes even the beating heart of American entrepreneurship, high tech.
Although the overall slump dates back more than 30 years, economists are most concerned about a more recent trend. In the 1980s and 1990s, the entrepreneurial slowdown…