Elizabeth Isele spent 30 years as a book editor at New York publishers. She moved to Portland, Me., in 1996 and set up a nonprofit that taught computer skills to the elderly. Now Isele, 71, is reinventing herself again, this time as an advocate for senior entrepreneurs. In recent months she’s addressed the Federal Reserve and the Senate Special Committee on Aging, asking policymakers to facilitate access to loans and other capital for older Americans starting small businesses. “It’s always been interesting to hear about someone who’s retired and opens a bicycle shop or vineyard,” she says. “I’m trying to get people to understand that this isn’t just some nice and lovely story. Seniors are driving economic opportunity and creating jobs.”
A 2013 Gallup poll showed that 73 percent of boomers expect to remain in the workforce well beyond the time they’ll be eligible to begin collecting Social Security—41 percent by choice and 32 percent by necessity. Among entrepreneurs ages 20 to 64 who founded their first businesses in 2012, 23 percent were 55 or older, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, up from 14 percent in 1996. About half of businesses started by senior entrepreneurs are still in existence after five years, according to Isele’s organization, Senior Entrepreneurship Works. That’s slightly better than the survival rate for all new businesses.
“We’ve only really jumped into this area with focused attention over the last three years,” says Jody Holtzman, a senior vice president for thought leadership at AARP, the largest advocacy group for seniors in the U.S., with more than 37 million members. That’s meant teaming up with the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City (Mo.)-based nonprofit focused on entrepreneurship research and training, to kick off a series of 10-week training workshops for individuals 50 and older. A second installment of the program, designed to help participants develop business plans that build on their existing expertise, got under way in Irvine, Calif., in February, and a Spanish-language session is scheduled for Miami later this year. Holtzman says AARP’s new focus on entrepreneurship is attracting younger retirees to the organization: “It has helped us find a new constituency among people who may not have viewed us as relevant in the past.”
Michele Markey, a vice president at Kauffman who designed the curriculum for the boomer education program, says that while its purpose is to support new business owners, the courses might also help dissuade some from taking the plunge, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Boomers don’t have time to recover from failure like a 20-year-old does,” Markey says. “You have to look at what the initial investment is and whether there are enough years left to realize a profit. You’re essentially planning an exit and entrance at the same time.”
The risk of failure didn’t deter Tom Stajmiger, who took the course last year. The 51-year-old resident of New Rochelle, N.Y., and his husband, Todd Couchman, 50, used their entire cash savings and maxed out their credit cards to start Urban Made Man, an e-tailer of handmade accessories for men. They intend to open brick-and-mortar stores later. Says Stajmiger: “It’s now or never if we’re going to do something we love.”
There were 4.4 million self-employed Americans 55 or older in 2010, according to Greg O’Neill, director of the National Academy on an Aging Society, but only one-third of those businesses are incorporated. Many older Americans are going into business for themselves as consultants, financial advisers, or lawyers. Others are selling crafts or collectibles through online marketplaces such as EBay or Etsy.
Recently, Isele has been lobbying politicians from both parties to enact legislation that would let people older than 65 collect unemployment benefits at the same time they are establishing a business. She also favors incentives for banks and other financial organizations to lend to seniors for their new businesses. One statistic that might help convince lawmakers that this is worthwhile: The average small business owner quits working at 72, more than four years later than the average salaried worker.