What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a question we’ve all been asked at some point. If you live in Indonesia, the answer could well be “an entrepreneur”, according to a recent survey.

More than one-third of the country’s young people, between the ages of 15 and 35, want to work for themselves. This may seem unsurprising in light of its recent string of booming tech unicorns – start-ups that have reached $1 billion valuation – that inspire the country’s youth.

Business leaders like Ferry Unardi, the chief executive of travel booking site Traveloka, and Nadiem Makarim, founder of regional ride-hailing app Gojek – both in their 30s – have demonstrated young entrepreneurs can turn fledgling tech companies into billion-dollar enterprises in a relatively short time frame.

Mind your own business

Indonesians are not alone in their dreams of business success. The World Economic Forum’s latest annual survey of youth attitudes in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries reveals a region buzzing with entrepreneurial spirit.

Image: World Economic Forum

The survey asked what type of organization people work for today, and where they would like to work in the future. In Indonesia, 34.1% of young people currently work for themselves, and an additional 1.5% would like to.

In Thailand, the percentage is only slightly less, accounting for almost a third of the country’s youth.

More than one-quarter of young people in Viet Nam expressed entrepreneurial aspirations. The country has its own successful tech start-ups, such as agricultural technology firm Hachi, which uses internet-of-things sensors to drip-feed water to plants, with the aim of saving waste and boosting productivity.

An early start

The survey found that just over 26% of respondents work for themselves, up slightly from the previous year, while almost 1% more aspire to in the future.

Image: World Economic Forum

When entrepreneurs and those working for start-ups are added together, the total accounts for almost one-third of the youth in ASEAN countries, further emphasizing the attraction of owning a business.

In certain countries or situations, the desire to be an entrepreneur may be driven more by necessity than dreams of big business, as people feel they have no other option but to work for themselves.

Aside from becoming a business owner, the lure of working for a multinational company is also growing in popularity. Twice the number of people who currently work at multinationals would like a future doing so.

Working for a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) is less attractive than in previous years, although these enterprises form the backbone of many of the region’s economies. This change in attitude could create recruitment challenges for the sector in the coming years.

Regional differences

While Southeast Asia is experiencing an entrepreneurial boom, the picture is different in some other parts of the world.

A national report by the Kauffman Foundation shows a decline in the proportion of new US entrepreneurs aged between 20 and 34 years old in recent years, while the rate has increased among older people.

In 1996, more than 34% of all US entrepreneurs belonged to this younger age group, but 20 years on the proportion has fallen to around a quarter.

In France, 16% of 18- to 24-year-olds “certainly” want a career as an entrepreneur, increasing to one-fifth for 25- to 34-year-olds, which is the highest rate of any age group.

Compared to the mature markets of the US and many European countries, most Southeast Asian economies are expanding rapidly, with booming tech sectors and growing incomes among the emerging middle classes. These conditions are ripe for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to succeed.

If ASEAN were a country it would rank as the fifth-largest economy in the world. By 2020, almost two-thirds of the 640 million population will be under 40 and will surely produce one of two of the people launching the unicorns of the future.