Wednesday 5 February 2020 5:46 am

You're never too old to start a business: Why we need to harness senior enterprise

Orpa Haque is assistant programme manager at Nesta Challenges.
assistant programme manager, Nesta Challenges

With a rapidly-ageing demographic across Europe, it is time to re-evaluate not only our own attitudes towards older people, but also the value of senior enterprise and their contribution to society. 

By 2020, the over-50s in the UK will make up nearly one third of the working-age population, and almost half of the adult population. As such, we need to view ageing as not a problem, but an opportunity. Older adults have a wealth of experience, and many are driven by a passion to contribute to society — not just economically, but also to make a positive environmental and social impact.  

It’s not just about working for longer — which many older people will need to do anyway because of pension shortfalls. It’s also about encouraging and fostering entrepreneurship so that older adults can start businesses or non-profits, add value to existing organisations, and contribute to the wealth of the nation. 

Ultimately, we need to embrace older people as assets, and regard them as civic actors utilising their extensive experience to drive economic growth and solve critical problems in society. 

Perhaps most importantly, senior enterprise enriches the lives of older adults, contributing to their learning, financial assets, and social wellbeing. 

The European Commission has taken this issue very seriously for a number of years, and is exploring how we can all benefit from the knowledge and skills of seniors, while ensuring that they are also supported in developing businesses of their own.

While this is encouraging, a recent study from Nesta Challenges found that over one third of the nation (34 per cent) frequently worry about job availability and the future of work. Unsurprisingly, almost half of those aged 55–64 are concerned about job security as they move closer to retirement, while this falls to 27 per cent of 35–44 year olds.

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A clear gap exists between a vision at the highest level of how seniors can play a positive role in society by becoming more entrepreneurial, and the seniors themselves who may not know where to start and lack confidence, believing that their age will count against them. 

The fast pace of digital transformation is also a deterrent — many feel that they cannot catch up with the younger generation. 

The challenge is therefore clear: to address this perceived lack of confidence, boost skill sets (especially in technology), and reignite their desire to enter the later years of life with an entrepreneurial mindset. 

But how do we set about achieving this? One example is the recent launch of the Smart Ageing Prize by the AAL Programme and Nesta Challenges, which aims to harness the power of senior enterprise in order to make a positive impact on their own livelihoods, as well as the economies and societies of their countries. 

The Prize is looking for innovative ways to support, empower, and inspire seniors to engage in entrepreneurship. Solutions can be digital or tech based, or can utilise non-technological solutions, tools, and infrastructure. 

This is a significant step towards breaking down misconceptions and barriers, and liberating the talents of an ageing population — a conversation that we all need to be having. 

If recent figures are to be believed, just seven per cent of people in the 65 and older age group had some intention to start a business within the next three years. That’s compared to 32 per cent of people in the 18–29 age group. Clearly, then, there is work to be done. 

This will be hard, but if we do the work, we can start to imagine a time where ageism is a thing of the past, and society values and respects older adults, seeking them out for their skills and experience. That would be a healthier, more productive society.

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