ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Every passing month and unanswered résumé dimmed Jim Glay’s optimism more. So with no job in sight, he joined a growing number of older people and created his own.
In a mix of boomer individualism and economic necessity, older Americans have fueled a wave of entrepreneurship. The result is a slew of enterprises such as Crash Boom Bam, the vintage drum company that 64-year-old Glay began running from a spare bedroom in his apartment in 2009.
The business hasn’t made him rich, but Glay credits it with keeping him afloat when no one would hire him.
“You would send out a stack of 50 résumés and not hear anything,” said Glay, who had been laid off from a sales job. “This has saved me.”
The annual entrepreneurial activity report published in April by the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found the share of new entrepreneurs ages 55 to 64 grew from 14.3 percent in 1996 to 23.4 percent last year. Entrepreneurship among 45- to 54-year-olds saw a slight bump, while activity among younger age groups fell.
The foundation doesn’t track startups by those 65 and older, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that group has a higher rate of self-employment than any other age group.
Part of the growth is the result of the overall aging of America. But experts say older people are flocking to self-employment both because of a frustrating job market and the growing ease and falling cost of starting a business.
“It’s become easier technologically and geographically to do this at older ages,” said Dane Stangler, the research and policy director at Kauffman. “We’ll see continued higher rates of entrepreneurship because of these demographic trends.”
Paul Giannone’s later-life move to start a business was fueled not by losing a job, but by a desire for change.
After nearly 35 years in information technology, he embraced his love of pizza and opened a Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurant, Paulie Gee’s, in 2010. Giannone, 60, had to take a second mortgage on his home, but he said the risk was worth it: The restaurant is thriving and a second location is in the works.
“I wanted to do something that I could be proud of,” he said. “I am the only one who makes decisions and I love that. I haven’t worked in 3 1/2 years, that’s how it feels.”
Some opt for a more gradual transition.
Al Wilson, 58, of Manassas, Va., has kept his day job as a program analyst at the National Science Foundation while he tries to attract business for Rowdock, the snug calf protector he created to ward off injuries rowers call “track bites.”
Though orders come in weekly from around the world, they’re not enough yet for Wilson to quit his job.
“At this stage in my life, when I’m looking at in the near future retiring, to step out and take a risk and start a business, there was some apprehension,” Wilson said. “But it’s kind of rejuvenated me.”
Mary Furlong, who teaches entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University and holds business startup seminars for boomers, says older adults are uniquely positioned for the move because they are often natural risk-takers who are passionate about challenges and driven by creativity.
There can be hurdles.
Though most older entrepreneurs opt to create at-home businesses where they are the only employee, even startup costs of a couple thousand dollars can be prohibitive for some. Also, generating business in an online economy is tougher if the person has fewer technological skills.
Furlong said many who start businesses later in life do so as a follow-up to a successful career from which they fear a layoff or have endured one.
“The boomers are looking to entrepreneurship as a Plan B,” she said.”
Antoinette Little would agree.
She spent 20 years at a law firm, starting as a legal secretary and working her way up to manage the entire office. The stress of working 80 hours or 90 hours a week and always being on call started taking a toll.
After being diagnosed with an enlarged heart, she said, “The doctor told me either quit or you’re going to die.”
Little took a series of culinary classes and found a new passion, opening Antoinette Chocolatier in Phillipsburg, N.J. She misses her previous career and, though the store is now in the black, the profits aren’t robust. Still, she says she is having fun making chocolate, particularly when children press their noses against the glass doors to the store’s kitchen.
“I’m my own boss and you get to eat your mistakes,” she said. “How bad could it be?”
Most boomer businesses are not brick-and-mortar establishments like those of Little and Giannone.
Jeff Williams, who runs BizStarters, which has helped Glay and thousands of other boomers start businesses, says most older entrepreneurs want to make a minimal investment, typically less than $10,000, to get off the ground.
He classifies about 40 percent of his clientele as “reluctant entrepreneurs” who are turning to their own business because they can’t find any other work.
Williams said owning a business also gives older adults the flexibility they desire and a sense of control while remaining active.
“To suddenly leave the corporate world and to be sitting around the house all day long? This is an alien concept to boomers,” he said.
Glay says he needed the paycheck, but starting his business was also about keeping his mind engaged. He had worked for the same record company for 23 years when he was told to meet his boss at an airport hotel, where the bad news was delivered.
Though Crash Boom Bam hasn’t come close to replacing an annual income that crept into six figures, Glay says he’s busier than ever now, between the business, regular drumming gigs, and part-time work at a bookstore and a wine-tasting event company. Sitting among shelves full of drums and their shimmering chrome, he is reflective thinking about what his business means.
“The satisfaction of doing what I’m doing now is much greater, but the money is less,” he said. “Even if it’s not making me a millionaire, I know what it’s doing for my head. There’s no price you could put on that.”
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