Boomer Entrepreneur Trend Could be Slowing With Age

Businesswoman listening to earbuds and working in home office
Bill Cheyrou/Alamy

By Mark Miller

CHICAGO -- Nancy Kessler spent much of her career as a museum curator, but she also has had a lifelong love of working with older people. During one stint working with Alzheimer's patients, she noticed a gap in one type of caregiving: "There is a lot of wellness and physical therapy but not much intellectual stimulation."

Last year, she decided to do something about that. Following a layoff at age 58, she launched Memoirs Plus, which specializes in writing memoirs for seniors. The idea of her business is to provide her clients with intellectual stimulation and a creative activity that helps them tell their life stories.

Kessler, who lives in Mount Kisco, New York, typifies the wave of baby boomer entrepreneurship that has driven impressive startup numbers in recent years. The rate of startups by older Americans has outpaced other age groups in the last few years. Many are pursuing a dream of independent employment; others get excited about an idea. In some cases, it is a simple matter of attempting to make ends meet and building retirement security.

Among the population aged 55-64, some 0.31 percent started a business last year, according to the latest Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. That is higher than the 0.28 percent startup rate for the total population, and just a little less than the rate among people aged 45-55, which was 0.36 percent.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-The research tells us that those who do start companies in 50s and 60s are more likely to do it from an existing job than being out of the labor force.%The rates for baby boomers are somewhat down from their peaks in 2009. That signals to Dane Stangler, Kauffman's vice president of research and policy, that the wave may be flagging for the boomer generation -- especially those heading into their 70s.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 has also taken a toll on entrepreneurship, Stangler says. The substantial decline in housing values has made it more difficult to finance startups, since home equity is a key source of financing a new business.

"And people are more gun-shy about tapping it in the future," he adds. The large number of workers who have left the labor force in their 50s also has a dampening effect. "The research tells us that those who do start companies in 50s and 60s are more likely to do it from an existing job than being out of the labor force."

Businesses like Kessler's show that there is still some fuel in the tank -- especially among those still in their 50s and early 60s. Sole proprietors like Kessler can get started without much capital. And many older workers will want to keep earning income while gaining the freedom of going solo.

To get started on her new business, Kessler took classes at a local nonprofit in Westchester County, New York, where she lives, that helps women launch businesses. She learned how to write a business plan and research her startup. She also launched a networking group with other businesses serving seniors in her area.

Kessler took her entrepreneurial turn equipped with a rich network of contacts accumulated over the course of her career, which includes a graduate degree in museum studies and experience managing the finances of several nonprofit organizations. She incorporated as a limited liability company. She has no grand ambitions for the business beyond generating a satisfactory living for herself.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-799%The math of earning income longer is compelling. As I noted last week, it can generate additional wage credits that drive Social Security benefit calculations, and enable a delayed filing for benefits. It is also a great way to play catch-up on retirement account contributions.

Even three years of additional income improves the odds of a financially secure retirement by an impressive 55 percent, according to research by David Blanchett, head of retirement research at Morningstar (MORN).

For Kessler, at least, things certainly are looking up. She is doing the research, writing, editing and design for six memoirs for clients who mostly are in their upper 80s. She earns $2,000 or more from each project and derives enormous satisfaction from the work. "There's an amazing clarity to their narratives -- and I'm hearing stories that their children haven't even heard yet."

(The opinions expressed are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)