Hold the Retirement Party — Grandma’s Starting Her Own Business

Baby boomers make up a growing share of new entrepreneurs, as older Americans look for ways to stay busy and earn money.

Judith Norton, is looking to expand her low-sugar, spiked jam business after taking an entrepreneurship class through the Kauffman Foundation.
National Journal
June 26, 2014, 9:56 a.m.

Ju­dith Norton nev­er ima­gined be­com­ing a pur­vey­or of high-end jam. The par­tially re­tired Cali­for­nia res­id­ent in­stead spent the bulk of her ca­reer cre­at­ing and writ­ing edu­ca­tion­al train­ing ma­ter­i­als for private com­pan­ies from the cof­fee in­dustry to com­munity col­leges. Yet now, at 67, Norton finds her­self con­tem­plat­ing a dif­fer­ent ca­reer tra­ject­ory: as an en­tre­pren­eur who makes and mar­kets low-sug­ar jam, fin­ished with a splash of spir­its. Her jam tastes so good that an Or­ange County Re­gister food writer lis­ted it as a fa­vor­ite product for 2013. That’s not a bad dis­tinc­tion for a product that Norton con­sidered a hobby un­til re­cently.

Norton, like many aging Amer­ic­ans, is not ready to re­tire in the ste­reo­typ­ic­al sense — mov­ing to Flor­ida or play­ing bingo or spend­ing her days shut­tling between doc­tor’s ap­point­ments. (She says she’s way too healthy for that.) In­stead, she is think­ing about ramp­ing up her jam-mak­ing in­to a small busi­ness with a ded­ic­ated pro­duc­tion space and great­er so­cial me­dia pres­ence.

What helped to put her in this en­tre­pren­eur­i­al frame of mind? A pi­lot pro­gram from AARP and the Kauff­man Found­a­tion that teaches en­tre­pren­eur­i­al skills to baby boomers and seni­or cit­izens in Or­ange County and New York as a way to both keep this demo­graph­ic en­gaged in the work­force for longer and to provide them with a po­ten­tially dif­fer­ent way to earn money as they age. “We’re try­ing to stim­u­late in­nov­a­tion that will be­ne­fit people over the age of 50,” says Jody Holtz­man, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of thought lead­er­ship at AARP, who helped to launch the pi­lot pro­grams. “It can have a dir­ect im­pact if people over 50 start com­pan­ies, hire work­ers, and pay taxes.”

The num­ber of en­tre­pren­eurs ages 55 to 64 has only grown over the last dec­ade — bust­ing the myth of en­tre­pren­eur­ship as something solely for young, hot­shot, hood­ie-wear­ing risk takers. In 2003, people ages 55 to 64 rep­res­en­ted 18.7 per­cent of all new en­tre­pren­eurs, com­pared with 2013 when their ranks rose to 23.4 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to data from the Kauff­man Found­a­tion. New en­tre­pren­eurs from this age group now sur­pass the num­ber of those in the 20-34 age range. “The trend lines are very clear there,” says E.J. Reedy, dir­ect­or in re­search and policy at the Kauff­man Found­a­tion. “Most people who go in­to en­tre­pren­eur­ship have some work his­tory.”

The Kauff­man Found­a­tion first be­came in­ter­ested in ca­ter­ing to the baby boomer and aging en­tre­pren­eur­i­al set in 2009, when one of its top re­search­ers, Dane Stan­gler, pre­dicted a com­ing en­tre­pren­eur­i­al boom among older people. Stan­gler thought that rising life ex­pect­ancy, coupled with the huge co­hort of baby boomers about to re­tire and a pretty tough labor mar­ket, would drive more people to start firms or work for them­selves. His pre­dic­tions were not off-base. The num­ber of new en­tre­pren­eurs between the ages of 55 and 64 con­tin­ues to grow, com­pared with the young­est gen­er­a­tion (even as the largest share of new en­tre­pren­eurs still falls in the age range of 45 to 54).

Armed with about $30,000 in AARP money, the Kauff­man Found­a­tion cre­ated a busi­ness class de­signed es­pe­cially for older Amer­ic­ans. The goal was to help baby boomers and seni­or cit­izens think through the mech­an­ics of start­ing a busi­ness from scratch: from hon­ing a sales pitch to find­ing fin­an­cing to build­ing fin­an­cial pro­jec­tions and de­vel­op­ing a per­son­al brand. At the same time, the class tries to take in­to ac­count the unique as­pects of start­ing a busi­ness as an older work­er such as the fin­an­cial risk and factor­ing in the de­sire to even­tu­ally re­tire. “If I’m a boomer and I’m think­ing about start­ing a busi­ness, I need to plan my exit as soon as I plan my en­trance, un­like a 20-year-old,” says Michele Mar­key, vice pres­id­ent of products and pro­grams at the Kauff­man Found­a­tion. So far, about 100 people have at­ten­ded the pi­lot classes in New York and Or­ange County, with AARP of­fer­ing some schol­ar­ships to cov­er part of the cost.

Larry Kutcher, a con­sult­ant to en­tre­pren­eurs and com­pan­ies, taught the in­aug­ur­al Or­ange County class. Un­like young­er people, Kutcher says that baby boomers and re­tir­ees bring spe­cial skills to en­treneur­ship: lots of work ex­per­i­ence, a fairly soph­ist­ic­ated sup­port net­work, and fin­an­cial re­sources. The chal­lenge, he says, is that many come from cor­por­ate en­vir­on­ments, where they’re ac­cus­tomed to an abund­ance of re­sources, or where they’re taught to act with more cau­tion in pur­su­ing their ideas.

This is where Kutcher first en­countered Norton, the jam-maker who still raves about the ex­per­i­ence and stays in touch with her class­mates. “It gave me a dif­fer­ent way to look at hav­ing a busi­ness and dif­fer­ent op­tions that I nev­er would have had ac­cess to,” she says. “It was a real high to go to the class every week.”

Of the 21 people who en­rolled in the Or­ange County class, about three or four are now act­ively pur­su­ing their busi­ness ven­tures. In ad­di­tion to Norton’s jam pro­spects, oth­ers are work­ing on open­ing a con­sign­ment store, start­ing web­site pro­jects, or of­fer­ing pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices like help­ing col­lege stu­dents pre­pare for job in­ter­views, Kutcher says. Just as im­port­ant, a few at­tendees figured out that their busi­ness ideas would not work in the mar­ket­place. “That is, by it­self, a suc­cess,” Kutcher says.

Of course, there’s in­her­ent risk in nudging baby boomers and seni­or cit­izens to­ward en­tre­pren­eur­ship. The fin­an­cial risk of po­ten­tially sink­ing part of one’s nest egg in­to an un­cer­tain ven­ture comes at a time when people need to en­sure they have enough money to live as they age and face mount­ing health con­cerns. But for baby boomers who’ve found them­selves laid-off from long-held, cor­por­ate jobs thanks to the re­ces­sion, or for those who aren’t yet ready to re­tire, en­tre­pren­eur­ship of­fers an av­en­ue for stay­ing en­gaged and con­tinu­ing to make some money over a longer time peri­od. “You no longer have longev­ity even at the lar­ger com­pan­ies, and this con­spires to make every­one at-risk any­way,” Kutcher adds. “Our so­ci­ety has changed, so that every­one is an en­tre­pren­eur in some re­spect.”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Loses in Court Again
1 days ago
Trump Pulls the Plug on Infrastructure
1 days ago
Parties Go to Court Today Over Trump Banking Records
1 days ago
Tillerson Talking to House Foreign Affairs
2 days ago

"Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was spotted entering a congressional office building on Tuesday morning for what a committee aide told The Daily Beast was a meeting with the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs committee and relevant staff about his time working in the Trump administration. ... Tillerson’s arrival at the Capitol was handled with extreme secrecy. No media advisories or press releases were sent out announcing his appearance. And he took a little noticed route into the building in order to avoid being seen by members of the media."

House Subpoenas Hope Hicks, Annie Donaldson
2 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.