Old Dogs, New Tricks: Why More Seniors Are Starting Companies

In the "Indian Summer" of their lives, more Americans between 50 and 75 are working well into years that used to be exclusively for the retired. Should we cheer them?

In the "Indian Summer" of their lives, more Americans between 50 and 75 are working well into years that used to be exclusively for the retired. Should we cheer them?



Marion Jackson's airy, light-filled studio is filled with Brazilian art and sculpture. It sits on the third floor of a five-story, 100,000-square-foot industrial building in downtown Detroit that opened in 1927 to house the service department for Pontiac. The Corvette was later designed there. But that was before the U.S. auto industry declined, and the neighborhood became a wasteland of abandoned buildings.

Not anymore. Today, 250 start-up companies inhabit the renovated building, which is the centerpiece of a business incubator called TechTown. Jackson's venture, Con/Vida--in Spanish, "with life"--sells indigenous art from Latin America and curates exhibitions for galleries and museums. Jackson, 70, retired as an art-history professor at Detroit's Wayne State University last year and applied her knowledge of northeastern Brazil to the pursuit of a second career as Con/Vida's codirector.

This new chapter in Jackson's work life, much like the building the studio inhabits, amounts to a kind of adaptive reuse--of skills instead of space. In this, she has company. TechTown is run by Randal Charlton, a 71-year-old former jazz impresario and serial entrepreneur, whose human-tissue company was the resurrected building's first tenant. TechTown, an independent nonprofit, was launched a decade ago by Wayne State--which recently hired 77-year-old Allan Gilmour, a former Ford Motor chief financial officer, as its president.

By the prevailing definitions, all three of them are in old age--often portrayed as a wasteland of its own. We're set to become "a planet that's a whole lot more crowded--with old people," Phillip Longman, a senior research fellow on health policy at the New America Foundation, lamented in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy. He and other scholars who predict the "hyper-aging" of the developed world--when walkers will outnumber strollers--worry about too few working-age adults having to support too many children and retirees.

But economists such as Stanford University's John Shoven find these gloomy forecasts "deeply flawed" because, he has written, of "the misleading way in which we measure age" as longevity becomes reality for more and more Americans. Our notions of old age are themselves old-fashioned, reflecting a time when the typical 60-something was physically worn out from laboring in an auto plant or some other factory. In recent years, scholars in a range of academic disciplines report seeing signs of a new stage of life between the prime working years and full retirement. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard education professor, calls this phase the "third chapter," after childhood and younger adulthood, defining it as "the generative space" between 50 and 75 years old. Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson--Margaret Mead's daughter--labels the period "Adulthood II."

The creation of a new stage of life may seem counterintuitive. However, phases of life aren't natural phenomena, like the seasons of the year, but rather social constructions. Consider adolescence. The concept didn't exist until 1904, when G. Stanley Hall, a 60-year-old psychologist emerging from his own midlife crisis, wrote a book of more than 1,000 pages titled Adolescence. He was describing an extended period between childhood and adulthood free from grown-up responsibilities. The concept had a romantic tinge, but it grew out of fears that in a period of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, these minors would be running wild--anxieties that inspired laws requiring high school attendance and banning child labor. Adolescents began to be called "teenagers" after Seventeen magazine began publishing in 1944.

Hall, as it happens, also introduced the idea of a new stage on the other side of midlife. In a book published in 1922, he described an "Indian summer" between the middle years and old age. Humans, he reflected, "rarely come to anything like a masterly grip til the shadows begin to slant eastward." The book's title, Senescence, may help explain why the concept didn't catch on.

But will it now? That's hard to say. Before the Great Recession struck, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted a more than fivefold gain in labor-force participation by Americans over 55, compared with younger age groups. The economic downturn has intensified this pressure to extend working lives, while in other ways it has hurt. The unemployment rate for Americans age 55 and older was only 6.4 percent in November. But those who do lose their jobs tend to be unemployed far longer than younger workers. Fewer than a quarter of workers over 50 who lost their jobs from mid-2008 through 2009, the Urban Institute reported, found work within a year.

Even so, older Americans appear to be trying to fashion a working life beyond the middle years--and often succeeding. Entrepreneurship, for one thing, is rising. For 11 of the 15 years from 1996 to 2010, Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity of any age group, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Twice as many founders of U.S. technology companies were over age 50 as were under 25.

Across the socioeconomic spectrum, 9 percent of Americans ages 44 to 70 have launched "encore" careers, according to a 2011 study by Penn Schoen Berland. Their paying jobs, part- or full-time, are often in the public sector--as teachers, nurses, home health aides, and the like--or with nonprofit groups.

The practical idealism of these late careers may reflect a shift in values as people mature and focus more on activities meant to contribute to society's greater good. Such late-stage jobs fit nicely within the socially beneficial lines of work that Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone has predicted will need more labor: education, health care, nonprofit community groups, religious organizations, and government.

An encore career may entail some preparation. The number of over-50 Americans entering divinity school has doubled since 1990. A Catholic seminary near Milwaukee, the Sacred Heart School of Theology, specializes in training second-career priests--widowers, mainly. This past fall, high-tech billionaire Steve Poizner and former Hollywood studio executive Sherry Lansing announced a $15 million partnership with the University of California (Los Angeles) to launch the Encore Career Institute, a program of continuing education aimed at baby boomers. The American Association of Community Colleges has started an initiative to accommodate the growth of the over-50 student population, which increased by 17 percent from 2007 to 2009.

These things are happening without much of a push from Washington. After World War II, the GI Bill helped ex-soldiers gain an education and thrive. Nowadays, the federal Troops to Teachers initiative helps military personnel, many of them retired, earn a degree in education. But aspiring encore careerists can't look to the government for much more help. A 2009 law promoting national service established Encore Fellowships for adults who want to move into nonprofit or public-sector employment, but Congress hasn't appropriated a cent to fund them.

Unless Washington summons up the desire--and money--to urge this transition along, the future of encore careers will depend on the private sector. And on a generation's entrenched culture. As baby boomers live longer and wrestle with retirement, they won't accede easily. The willful generation that Time magazine named as its Man of the Year--"25 and Under," in 1966--never has.