Retirement Can Wait—Boomers Embrace Entrepreneurship

These later-life start-ups can be the adventure of a lifetime—or a major risk

As boomers anticipate retirement, the American economy sputters. Employer-employee loyalty has gone the way of the tail-finned car. Many lost jobs are gone forever, taking with them, for many, any assurance of a comfortable retirement.

The difference between how much income Americans need to retire and what they will have is nearly $7 trillion, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, done for Retirement USA, a coalition of labor and pension rights advocates.

Against this bleak scenario, the spirit of Yankee ingenuity survives as many boomers launch new careers for themselves. Whether feeling the need for post-retirement income or motivated by a workplace environment that no longer respects older workers, people are starting over, sometimes well beyond the age at which they expected to be hanging up their careers for good.

Forbes magazine calls them boomerpreneurs: “50- to 70-year-old careerists driven to pursue lifelong dreams while they still have the health and gumption to do it.” They are starting from scratch, creating new businesses or venturing into fields they might only have dreamed about in their youths.

A Tough Job Market

Though younger workers have been laid off at higher rates during the recent recession, the older workers who have lost their jobs have had a much harder time finding new ones.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report on unemployed older workers. It found that in 2011, 47 percent of workers ages 25 to 55 were unemployed after 27 weeks compared to 55 percent of those older than 55. When they do find work, older workers are more likely than their younger counterparts to have to settle for less pay than they earned in previous jobs.

The report documents the fact that many older workers blame age discrimination for their difficulties in securing new jobs. It also reveals that outdated computer skills—including discomfort with online job searches and applications—made finding work even more challenging.

Focus groups of employers expressed reluctance to hire older workers, making assumptions that their health care costs would rise and that an older employee might not remain at the job long enough to justify the investment.
It’s this daunting environment that has sparked boomerpreneurs to take risks that they might not have considered in their youth.

Starting from Scratch

For brothers Stan and Pat Fish of Stockton, CA, the early 2000s seemed a good time to launch their new business of building and outfitting jails and prisons in California. The state economy was healthy and there was a growing demand for correctional facilities. Stan, 65, had owned a commercial printing shop in Everett, WA, and had worked most of his life as an electronics expert. Pat, 62, had many years of experience as a building constructor and contractor.

After watching many of their peers lose their jobs and suffer from a negative workplace atmosphere, the Fish brothers decided to start from scratch.

“Employment discrimination for those of us over 50 is a reality in spite of legislation or lip service to the contrary,” said Stan Fish. “That is what put Pat out of a job and I have no idea how much longer I would have lasted.”

They launched Pacific Systems Integration in 2008. After a good start, the recession began to affect the business. The brothers have had to broaden their focus to consider expanding into other states. But they remain upbeat.

“We are certainly looking forward to an upswing in the economy to help us out,” said Stan Fish.

Getting Up to Speed

While starting your own business can feel like the adventure of a lifetime, it’s also a major risk. Mary Beth Izard of Kansas City, author of BoomerPreneurs: How Baby Boomers Can Start Their Own Business, Make Money and Enjoy Life (2010), suggests that the earlier you consider your budding entrepreneurship, the better. Exploring what it would take to start a new business while you’re still employed at your current job can help you figure out if your ideas can become reality.

“It’s a great strategy to start doing your own thing while still at your job,” said 62-year-old Izard, who retired from full-time employment at 55 to launch her consulting career as a curriculum development specialist. “The average duration of unemployment for seniors is more than 40 weeks, and 9 percent of the unemployed create their own businesses.”

According to AARP, 80 percent of boomers will work at least part time after they “retire.”

One absolute necessity for both researching and starting a business is getting online. The Web is not only where you can find job listings and applications, but also where you’ll need to go to market your own venture.

The US Department of Labor offers some support, according to Richard Eisenberg, a senior web editor at For instance, unemployed older workers can get free computer training at One Stop Career Centers in every state.

The Labor Department is also partnering with the US Department of Veteran Affairs on a joint initiative called the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program. The goal is to find jobs for 99,000 veterans ages 35 to 60. The program will provide some funding for skills classes, then will assist in job searches.

In addition, community colleges and technical schools offer classes on computers and the Internet, as well as accounting, business management and other skills crucial to running a business.

Go with What You Know

One of the best ways to make a risky situation—launching a dream business in today’s economy, for instance—a little less dangerous is to stay in a field that you know well.

Cindy Dolphin decided it was time to follow her passion for wine when her employer of 24 years, Coors Brewing Co., began merger talks with Miller Brewing Co. She was 57 and the economy was tanking, but the move still felt right.

Dolphin knew plenty about wine, but not as much about running a business. So she signed up for computer training through the Small Business Administration. She also consulted AARP for guidance in matters such as business licensing.

Now, with her wine-marketing business growing within the industry, Dolphin recommends that fellow boomerpreneurs first identify their skills and focus their goals. Then, she suggests, pay a professional to handle the finances and, whenever possible, trade for services. She also touts social media tools, such as Facebook, as an excellent way to garner publicity for a new business.

Launching your own business is “a very scary feeling, and it’s bittersweet to leave behind the friendships of working within a corporation,” Dolphin said. “I wanted quality of life. I embraced it and I’m happy I did.”

No End to Your Working Days

According to AARP, 80 percent of boomers will work at least part time after they “retire.” The model of retirement as a leisurely, carefree playtime has been erased both by a difficult economy and by older adults who chose work as a way to stay active.

“[The] traditional idea of retirement is a mirage,” said Mary Lloyd of Tacoma, WA, author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love (2009). “It’s a fantasy that makes the insanity of a traditional career bearable. Those who take this kind of retirement realize in about a year just how empty it is.”

After leaving a management job to become a novelist at 47, Lloyd ran into age discrimination as she tried to advance her new career. So she re-recreated herself. Now 64, she writes about entrepreneurship and is a motivational speaker.

“What’s cool is that boomerpreneurs get to do whatever they want,” she said.

In other words, it’s never too late to become who you want to be when you grow up.

SCF staff contributed to this article.