The age-old debate – the energy and exuberance of youth versus the calm wisdom of age and experience – is alive and kicking in the world of business start-ups. Entrepreneurship is increasingly being touted as a cool and liberating career choice, and certainly technology is making start-up more possible, if not necessarily more sustainable. But alongside the young and dynamic entrepreneur, what role is there for the so-called ‘older-preneur’?
With evidence suggesting people in employment stay healthier for longer, pension pots under strain, and ageism still rife in the office, could business creation by older people make both social and economic sense?
In the not-for-private-profit sector, past curmudgeonly comments from Liam Black, former CEO of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, confirm his consistent and healthy distain for what he sees as social enterprise spin. More recently he’s been cautioning wannabe social entrepreneurs in his usual forthright way, advising them to “Get some real business skills first, really learn about and understand deeply the issue you want to change in the world, build your networks and personal resourcefulness. Because God knows you will need them when you start your social enterprise – if indeed you ever do.”
Black seems to be suggesting that entrepreneurs need to be resilient and that this tends to come with age. Jules Pieri is experienced in private sector start-ups, she too indentifies resilience as an essential attribute and one in which she believes older entrepreneurs may have a ‘hidden advantage’. Pieri is founder and CEO of The Grommet which ‘launches undiscovered consumer products’. She believes the more mature adult has “more significant social and family supports to give them resilience to survive the brutal psychological assaults of creating a company” Pieri commends her three teenage sons for helping her think through issues, serving as an interested sounding board.
Returning to his central theme, Liam Black concludes by saying ‘Let’s not fetishise social enterprise and risk setting up many young people to fail’. This is important. Yes, we want to bring out the best in young people and yes, we understand that we learn most from failure, but a failed business start-up in the social enterprise sector is different. It’s not just a knockdown for the entrepreneur, it can have a serious impact on potentially vulnerable groups they work with; people who may be both employees and customers.
UnLtd, the social venture support agency, have done some useful research into social entrepreneurship in the 50+ age group. Hannah McDowall, co-author of their 2012 report ‘Golden Opportunities: Social Entrepreneurs in an Ageing Society’ recently made an interesting distinction between the views of younger and older entrepreneurs as the difference between new parents and new grandparents. She said the new parent/entrepreneur thinks their baby/enterprise is beyond criticism, while the grandparent is equally passionate but tends to be more objective and measured – ‘a different energy’ was how she described it.
What the ‘Golden Opportunities’ report itself confirms is the positive contribution of the older social entrepreneur; not only keeping the individuals concerned active (and in many cases earning) for longer, but in developing social ventures that address issues specifically related to our ageing society. The authors cite three examples:
- Enabling ageing well by tackling inactivity in middle age
- Providing employment support for people over 50
- Building intergenerational collaboration to reduce the isolation of older people while passing on cultural skills and traditions to younger generations
To that list, I’d add a fourth example – my own social enterprise. The Repair Shed is to be a social enterprise run by and for older men at risk of loneliness – making, mending and learning for wider community benefit. That I fall into the 50+ category, and that I’m creating a facility I’d love to use myself, may help but it’s no guarantee of course that my ‘mature parenting’ will nurture success.
We want quality social enterprises to not only survive, but thrive. If those parental instincts also urge us to caution young upstarts with start-up ambitions, let’s hope they don’t automatically categorise us as grumpy old gits with no sense of adventure, but don’t be surprised if they do.