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Senior Entrepreneurs Are the Ones to Watch

19/11/2014 17:22 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 10:59 GMT

At the age of 76, Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals; an instinctively surprising fact. Partly because I didn't know that people commonly lived to 76 in the 1780s, but perhaps, more interestingly, because even today, we do not expect such imperative inventions to come from people in their 70s (and today 76 is an awful lot younger than it was for Franklin).

And why not? What is it about the senior entrepreneur that is so oxymoronic? Surely an older person is the most likely candidate to invent bifocals. I doubt that many 20-somethings (today as much as in the 18th century) have ever stopped to consider the greatness of a lens with two distinct optical powers.

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As Professor Vivek Wadhwa notes succinctly: "ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age." His logic is sound; the cumulative life experience that comes with age is surely a fundamental, if not the fundamental, tool for the aspiring entrepreneur. Yet we persist in framing entrepreneurs as young, spontaneous risk-takers, building their billions from their bedroom. Mark Zuckerberg is our norm rather than our exception.

Our obsession is partly an anachronistic hangover. Our understanding of the modern entrepreneur was formed in the 1980s and '90s during the dotcom boom when the dorm room billionaire was a reality, albeit still a small one. Many entrepreneurs under 30 made their fortune in tech startups and, in doing so, shaped how we understand entrepreneurship and those who engage in it.

If we turn even further back to the Industrial Revolution, we find that most men who built their way in business were young. However, this was due mostly to a shorter lifespan and the type of businesses that were being started. In an industrial (or pre-industrial) society, youth is crucial to success. The physical demand of running a cotton mill or laying a railway demands a literal agility that excludes the more elderly and makes business exclusively a young person's game.

Thus, it was circumstantial quirks of the dotcom boom and Industrial Revolution that meant that entrepreneurial fortune favoured the young, not a fundamental flaw on the part of older generations. This view of the past is crucial in understanding why today the greatest entrepreneurs are over 50 and, in the future, this change will only become more manifest.

73-year old billionaire, Carlos Slim believes that:

When you have a society of knowledge and experience and information, at [65] is where you are at your best. It's [foolish] to retire at this age. And you don't have the physical work, and you have the intellectual work [...] you are in your best in your 60s.

A Duke University study of 549 successful technology ventures has shown that today, the level of self-employment amongst over-50s is about one in five, which is vastly higher than the levels for younger age groups. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25 and the average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40.

It is not a question of whether older people could make good entrepreneurs, as they already do, but why old stereotypes so widely pervade. Not only do those over 40 start more businesses, they start better ones. A recent study showed that years of collected experience and expertise mean that this group of start-up entrepreneurs is more likely to succeed, with over 70% lasting more than five years, compared with a measly 28% of younger entrepreneurs.

An American Express OPEN® Ages Survey suggested that "in contrast to the younger generation, Baby Boomers have been impacted by several economic downturns and have become more prepared to weather marketplace volatility and the recent climate has made them more optimistic." Post-recession, younger people are far more adverse to risk (just 56% say they like taking risks, down from 72% in 2007) than their older counterparts whose desire for risk has remained unchained (54% vs. 53% in 2007).

Of course, there are challenges that face those who choose to start a business later in life. They tend to need more help than young entrepreneurs with new things: new technology, new types of business, new behaviours. However, critically all of these can all be taught, whereas the qualities that they do bring to the table: life experience and a long-term view of business, these things cannot be taught to the young.

Why is this an issue? If older people are not only better at starting successful enterprises, but are already doing so, what does it matter that it is not recognised?

Starting a business is difficult. A reality that is recognised by thousands of grants, organisations and resources available to new startups each year. However, predominantly only available to young entrepreneurs. The silent majority of older entrepreneurs do not have the resources and support; incubators and funds that they need.

That is why my entrepreneurship teaching is age-blind. On my School for Creative Startups (S4CS) courses, I accept entrepreneurs from as young as 20 as readily as those in their 60s and beyond. I will be starting my first S4CS course for the North of England in the New Year, where we were blown away by the number of talented, older, aspiring entrepreneurs, who, held back by a London-centric economy that favours the young, are desperate for something both local and open to all ages.

With the over-55s due to account for a third of the UK's population by 2025, older workers are well placed to transform what it means to be over-60 or retired, but only if we recognise their greatness and give them their due.