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Starting Over: The Rise of the Older Entrepreneur

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Paul Morris spent more than 30 years in international business, including an 11-year stint running a British company that manufactured keyboards. When the company was sold in 2003, he suddenly found himself, at age 64, without a job. “I could have retired,” Morris says, “but I wasn’t ready mentally or financially.”

Instead, with two partners, he started a company to compete with his previous employer, and today his little start-up is booming. Global Light, Morris’s company, which manufactures keypads, parts for gas pumps and bar code scanners for use in 70 countries, employs 30 people worldwide.

Despite the dismal economic climate and the discouraging statistics for employment, older adults like Morris are actually embarking on new business ventures in record numbers. While Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2011 show 6.3 million Americans over the age of 55 out of work, a small but dogged contingent of older adults is actually prospering in the faltering economy by reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs.

The Biggest Employment Trend in the Past 100 Years

There were almost 22 million self-employed folks between the ages of 55 and 64 at the end of 2009 (the last year for which such statistics are available), a 5 percent increase from the previous year. More interesting, among those 65 and older, 939,000 were self-employed, a 29 percent increase from the year before. This shift to self-employment among older workers, says Kevin E. Cahill, a research economist with Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work, “has become a very important part of the retirement process.”

“Loving your work is key. Find something you love, and don’t let fear stop you from achieving a dream, no matter what your age.”

Cahill gives two reasons for the trend: “Those who are self-employed stay in the workforce longer,” he explains, “and later in life, more people switch into self-employment than into salaried jobs.” Cahill says that older Americans tend to have more access to wealth to fund new ventures, and they have a lifetime of experience to apply to a new business.

The Makings of Success

That was the case with Morris, who used the knowledge gathered from three decades on the job. “I took a lot of what I learned in big companies to a small company,” he says. “I recognized my own strengths and weaknesses. I’m no good in sales, so my partner handles that, but I do know how to run a day-to-day business.”

Morris says senior entrepreneurs must start small, dream big and be willing to leap into unknown territory. The secret, he says, is to remain young at heart, enjoy daily challenges and be open to new ideas. And, he adds, “You have to be a risk taker.”

Pam Yount took risks after working for others for much of her life, most recently in collections for a refinishing company. She’d spent nearly 20 years writing a book about the death of her son in the 1980s from AIDS, which was published in 2008 just as she was turning 60. When her company wouldn’t give her enough time off for a book tour, she used vacation time to do readings and ultimately decided not to return.

A Transition to Retirement

“I loved my job and the people I worked with,” she says, “but it didn’t serve me anymore. I needed flexibility, and my son’s death had impressed upon me the fleeting nature of life. It was time I became my own person.”

She became her own person by entering a new field: the gold business. Her friends mentored her in its ins and outs and, following a short apprenticeship, she took money from her 401K, bought out her mentors and started her own business buying and selling gold jewelry to send to refineries to be melted down and sold.

Yount had the smarts to start a business that actually fared better in rough economic times. “North Carolina was already hit hard with the recession,” she explains, “and people desperately needed cash. When the economy is down, the gold market is up, and that’s the time to sell.”

Both Yount and Morris represent a common trend: people transitioning to self-employment before retiring, if they retire at all. Cahill says that 10 percent of men and 8 percent of women who work in wage and salary jobs switch to self-employment before leaving the workforce. “Prior to the 1980s, people were retiring earlier and earlier, but by the year 2000 that had begun to reverse,” he says, and adds: “The reversal in the trend toward earlier and earlier retirements that began in the mid-1980s is one of the most significant events in employment over the past 100 years.”

This is not just because people want to work longer, but also because they have to. Soon, Americans will have to be 67 before becoming eligible to receive full retirement benefits. But there are benefits to working longer, too, says Cahill: “the fulfillment of an interest, a challenge, the formation of new social networks and a bridge to retirement.”

Not that Yount is planning to retire any time soon. She thought she’d work in the gold business for a couple of years before the economy improved and people stopped selling gold; then she’d be ready to pack it in. Instead, the price of gold has more than doubled since she started, and she loves her work too much to stop. “Loving your work is key,” Yount says. “Find something you love, and don’t let fear stop you from achieving a dream, no matter what your age.”

Online Resources for Older Entrepreneurs

50+ Entrepreneurs Launched in spring 2102, this AARP-SBA partnership offers a host of resources and tools for people considering going solo. Not sure you’ve got what it takes? Take a self-evaluation test. Want to take an online course? This site has the 30-minute “Introduction to Starting Your On Business.”

Entrepreneurship Works The nonprofit organization’s site is designed to help people 50 and up build sustainable businesses.

Take Command  This nonprofit’s nitty-gritty financial advice is for anyone who’s thinking about starting a new business and includes info specifically for older workers – including this article on the risks involved in second-career startups.

Second Act Entrepreneur’s site for older workers has a section devoted to entrepreneurship; you’ll find many useful articles here and a window into some of the newer models for starting a business, including crowdfunding. This article includes advice for anyone who hopes to fund a startup by creating a campaign on  Kisckstarter or Rockethub.

Senior Entrepreneurship – How to Tap a Lifetime of Experience into Business Success” – This Small Business Administration article discusses five things you should consider as you start a business later in life.

The Older Entrepreneur’s Guide to Success Entrepreneur.com has four big tips for success in this article.

Features   Living/Aging   Work    

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1 Comment

  1. @bioneer says:

    Relating to this article/phenomena for me is due in large part to finding value in becoming an adult. Being optimistic is great. Tempered by a dash of skepticism is better. Then shifting between both keeps me realistic – being my best, being balanced between the two. Then I’m truly apt to be self-supporting, self-reliant: never letting either skepticism keep me from reaching for the highest heights nor optimism urging me to leap before looking both ways. I’m now ready to lead myself, my customers, vendors and my team. I’m becoming an adult only now nearly 61. 60 really may be the ‘new 18′. Am I’m so thankful to have this chance to start my business over again with the aid of extensive experience. So, when I do leave, the ‘campsite will be better than when I found it’!