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
Nancy Cook
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.”

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