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Too much experience is a good thing: the rise of the midlife entrepreneur

Research has found the over-50s are setting up businesses faster than any other age group

Portrait of smiling dog daycare owner with schnauzer
 Many women start the businesses they have been dreaming of after their children leave home. Photograph: Alamy

In 2016, my 30-year corporate career in human resources came to an end and, armed with my redundancy package, I started my own coaching business. Little did I know that I was becoming part of a bigger movement, where growing numbers of midlifers have become self-employed.

Suzanne Mountain
 Suzanne Mountain. Photograph: Kathryn Fell

recent survey conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research found that 45% of all self-employed people are now over the age of 50. We’re setting up businesses faster than any other age group and employ nearly 10 million people – almost 2 million more than the under-50s.

With over 30 years’ experience of talking to people about life choices and careers, I have observed a number of trends with my generation. Baby boomers have increasingly become disillusioned with the culture of large organisations. Flatter organisational structures, bottlenecks with too many senior candidates, and too few leadership positions have changed the world of work for many. Those of us who started our careers aspiring to receive the long-service pocket watch have realised the notion of a job for life has long since disappeared.

Although illegal, age discrimination is still rife. Middle-aged candidates are often told they have “too much experience”, “will get bored quickly” and that they are “too big for this role”. Many midlifers have been overlooked for promotion, in the face of a dramatic reduction in the average management team age, as companies obsess about bringing in fresh young talent. We have an ageing population and yet so many brilliant people in their 50s are being overlooked.

This has left my generation feeling distrustful, fearful and defensive of the employment market and determined to take back control. When many find themselves in a position where they’re offered redundancy, they take the money and run – not to the jobcentre or an online job board but to their spare bedroom, to create the lifestyle they want.

If you are in your 50s and considering setting up your own business, here is a reminder of your best assets and how to use them:

  • Your experience: Your significant knowledge of an industry or sector will serve as credibility in those early days when you are just starting out. Being adaptable is key and, at this time of life, we have had plenty of experience of being just that.
  • Your network: After years of working, you will have built up a large network of contacts who can assist you with your new venture. These people do not need to be clients but may have access to people who can become clients, investors or mentors.
  • Your ability to raise funds quickly and easily: Many people in their 50s will have small mortgages or none at all. Plus new rules mean anyone over 55 can access their pension pot, which could provide valuable startup capital.
  • Your balancing expertise: Over the years, midlifers have balanced full-time working with raising young families and caring for ageing parents, so being able to balance your new business with other aspects of your life is well within your toolkit. If the children have now left home, many women finally make the decision to set up the business they’ve been dreaming about for a long time.
  • Your desire to make a contribution: Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” back in the 1950s. It’s the desire to give back to society with work that is more than just a job and a pay cheque. I find that when imagining their new businesses, my coaching clients often talk of their desire to realise unfulfilled dreams, leave a legacy and do something they always wanted to do. Understanding your purpose and building a business that satisfies this while giving back to others can be a powerful motivator.

Suzanne Mountain’s is a business coach to midlife individuals.

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