Over-60 Entrepreneurship is Redefining Work by: Doug Dickson
Mo Lanier dresses for work each day in gym clothes because one year ago she opened Greatest Age Fitness, a personal training studio for people older than 50. Her business, which has grown steadily, boasts a tagline that
celebrates her clients’ maturity: “We’re not 25 anymore—ain’t it great!”
What convinced her, at age 59, to strike out on her own? “I wanted to implement my training model at the gym [where] I used to work, but my innovative methods for people over 50 just weren’t a good fit there,” she says.
“I finally decided that the only way to pursue my vision was to take a leap and open my own place.”
Elders Are Entrepreneurial
Is Lanier one of the exceptional few who embark on a new venture later in life? Not according to the Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation, which compiles an annual Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. Their numbers show that over the past decade, people between 55 and 64 have started new businesses at a higher rate than any other age group, including 20-year-olds, whom we often associate with entrepreneurship.
A study by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College puts the number of small business owners older than 60 at 12 percent. Adding self-employed independents (one-person businesses) to that number raises the percentage to 38—far beyond that of other age groups. And those numbers are trending up.
The reason has partly to do with demographics—there are simply more people older than 60. But other changes also
drive this trend: loss of pensions, stagnation in earnings and the Great Recession mean many people will need to work well into their retirement years. And advances in technology have made it easier to start and run many
We know longevity is prompting many to think about how they will remain engaged as they age. For a majority the answer is some form of work, not just to cover living expenses or add to savings, but also to create value and make a difference. Civic Ventures, co-creators of the Purpose Prize (which recognizes people older than 60 who start social enterprises), recently conducted a survey of 45- to 70-year-olds in which 25 percent indicated an interest in entrepreneurship. Half of those said they want to start a nonprofit to address a social issue. Civic Ventures labels this group “encore entrepreneurs.”
Catalino Tapia, a longtime gardener in San Francisco, is an encore entrepreneur and Purpose Prize winner. After seeing his son graduate from college and law school, he concluded that all students should save that opportunity. He formed the Bay Area Gardener’s Foundation to help low-income students get a college education. At 62, he began collecting funds from clients and businesses and awarding scholarships. Over the past five years, the foundation has grown steadily, offering a total of 70 scholarships. When asked why he took this on at this time in life, he said, “We had to do this. Somebody had to do something.”
Not (Necessarily) in It for the Money
What motivates older workers to choose entrepreneurship over other kinds of work? Mostly it’s the same factors that drive business founders of any age: a good idea, wanting to make things better, the desire for independence, wanting or needing flexibility in their work. But making money and building wealth almost never top the list.
Older entrepreneurs also bring distinct advantages to their ventures. As a group, they have developed a
broader range of skills and experience, better judgment, more personal resources, more robust networks and, often, they have fewer distractions.
Jeff Williams is founder of Bizstarters.com, which offers a range of services to help people older than 50 plan, launch and grow their businesses. His business has grown significantly in recent years as people who are let go by corporations or frustrated in their job searches look for alternatives.
“People don’t realize that many small businesses can now be started for about $5,000 and run on less than $300 a month,” Williams says. “That reduces the risk that most people associate with business start-up, and makes it a much more attractive option.” Williams tells his clients that, in today’s environment, “not everyone will hire you after age 50, but they’ll buy from you.”
Asked how long she expects to continue her fitness studio, Lanier pauses. “I’ve not thought much about that.” After another pause, she adds, “My first priority is to prove that my concept works and see where it leads. But beyond that, I’ll do this as long as I can.”
Doug Dickson is president of Discovering What’s Next, Inc., in Newtonville, Mass., and senior consultant at New Directions, Inc., in Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Note: This article appears in the March/April, 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s
bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy
nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may
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