Guest Blog: Entrepreneurship in Later Life, When Markets Are Ripe

By Mark Venning

Entrepreneurship in later life. At the risk of being prescriptive by way of writing a textbook definition of this venture, or you might say – adventure, I did learn early on that this movement would have legs as time went on. Gathering evidence of this, working directly in the front lines of the career development field since the mid-90’s, with a focus on entrepreneurship, it has been a privilege to help and encourage others to fulfill their goals while at the same time being realistic with people about keeping a healthy perspective on the challenges – reality bites as it were.

Let us not over inflate the trend bubble on this, the notion that suggests that legions of people over age 50 are breaking free to start and run a business, for it is not all it will turn out to be. From what I have observed, working with clients exploring this option, and for those who do it, the journey is often episodic in nature, and in addition to that, there are multiple variations of how people actually describe, design and construct their entrepreneurial story.

We must begin this discussion with understanding the motivations. Why do people in this rather large age zone (over 50), even want to consider this? As I often ask first, where are you on a scale from being – 1 (curious) to 5 (exploring) to 10 (real intent)? Not surprisingly, given the profile segmentations of the over 50’s, the responses tend to land somewhere in the middle.

What are those motivations?

Depending on the person’s situation at a given life stage, more than the actual age itself, the top responses are variations on three lines of thought:

  • can’t afford to retire, need/desire to supplement financial plans with earned income
  • too young to retire, need/desire to stay challenged or engaged
  • be my own boss, want flexibility, tired of working in the corporate environment

However, behind these statements, quite often there is a harboured wish to continue to look for a traditional job, hence the episodic nature of some entrepreneurial ventures. For example, it is not untypical for those who take the route of independent consulting to take on a full time position offered by a business client, and after a few years wander back to independence.

Probing people further in conversation, it turns out in many cases, that the word entrepreneurship sits very weighty on their minds, but when you turn it into a discussion of possibilities around “a range of self-employment options”, the explorer becomes more open minded.

What are those possibilities?

To start, I am keen to find out what ideas people already have in their heads. Sometimes several, though not always fully developed, these ideas fall under three general categories:

  • market my own expertise as an independent consultant or contractor
  • start a home based, web based business – product, service or craft
  • start a business or buy a franchise, build it to sell in a number of years

With the next two-part question: what is your specific business idea and to what extent have you determined that there is an obtainable market for it? …the answer is, “it’s a work in progress”.

Is there an obtainable market for you? That is a pretzel shaped question. On one twist, what differentiation, value and relevance to you bring to a given market, and the other twist is, what is the gap or unmet need in a market that you know you can serve?

While in discussions stemming from this question, I find that there are those who have little patience for the market research process and an under estimation of the ramp up period or timelines to get a business off and running. This is also accompanied by an under estimated realization that continuous life transitions as we age will require frequent recalibrations of business and personal goals.

Now there is another way forward where the possibilities can be several, simultaneously or sequentially, lived in the form of a portfolio of income streams. Interest or intent increases here as most people I have met, “explorers” of entrepreneurship in later life, have seen the merit in this model, because it can be modified over a longer period of later life stages. In that sense, this is a flexible, fluid from of self-employment, regenerative in process.

Enterprisers at any age

To re-frame this picture of entrepreneurship over the next decade, at whatever age we are, as market needs shift and traditional employment systems continue to reconstruct, it will require the curious, creative and collaborative mind-set of an enterpriser. We are all next decade enterprisers, and in a human service economy, there will be more need for social enterprisers at the same time as a renaissance for micro businesses, networked alliances & independent wide achievers, who like a da Vinci, learn to re-apply their talents to where the work meets the need.

Often spiffed up for marketing purposes by language like “seniorpreneur” or “boomerprenur”, we should note, that while entrepreneurial activity may have increased in this over 50 age group, the overall self-employment rate in Canada over the last several years has stayed constant at around 15.5 percent. At the same time with the continuum of demographic shifts in mind, the so named “generation X” is now entering their early 50’s and I don’t think they see themselves as seniors.

As we move into the next decade there is no reason to suspect that the exploration or intent level will diminish when it comes to entrepreneurship in later life, but two things will need to happen.

First, a healthier resource system to educate and support people will need to surface, one that demystifies the concept of entrepreneurship and makes it less about age and more about marketability. Second, more research is needed to understand the motivations, options, patterns and cycles of entrepreneurship or self-employment over a person’s life course.

__________________________________________________________________________________ Mark Venning works primarily with non-profit & business leaders offering insights and direction on the Business & Social Aspects of Aging Demographics and helps organizations adapt their thinking to meet the challenges of “recoding a longevity society” which include designing age inclusive communities and creating opportunities for inter-generational collaboration with an enterprising mind-set. www.changerangers.com