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The Reluctant Entrepreneur

Going "out on your own" when you can't find a job.

After two decades as a music industry sales executive, James Glay was laid off last year. “It was a real surprise,” says Glay, 60, of Arlington Heights, Ill. “I thought I’d be the last to go because of my tenure and performance.”

Glay immediately called all his contacts, started networking, and spent hours applying for jobs online. “It’s just been horrible,” he says. “I had six interviews in one year, and the only jobs available paid less than $10 an hour.” He has taken a part-time job selling sheet music, but most of his energy is devoted to starting a business and Web site centered on his passion, drums and drumming.

Despite their years of experience, older workers like Glay are facing the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. They are also remaining out of work longer than younger workers, with over 40 percent staying jobless six months or longer. And once they land a job, they often must settle for lower pay than they’re used to.

So it is no wonder a growing number of older adults are becoming “reluctant entrepreneurs,” creating their own jobs.

Nearly a quarter of age 55-plus workers who were laid off last year say they’re considering starting their own business, according to a July 2009 Careerbuilders.com study. “I’m seeing an uptick in interest from involuntary boomer entrepreneurs,” says Jeff Williams, head of Bizstarters.com, a Chicago-based coaching firm. “People over 50 have a strong aspiration to be their own boss, and they dream of only doing work they love.”

Entrepreneurship is familiar to this age group. Already, 15 percent of workers ages 50 to 64 are self-employed—and that rises to 25 percent for workers 65 or older, according to government figures.

One reason, says a recent Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study, is that older adults often have the experience, cash and contacts to start a business. Another factor may be that lifetime employment with a single company, particularly for men, has fallen dramatically in the last 50 years. “You can no longer count on the gold watch,” says the study’s author, Dane Stangler. “You have to find other ways to earn your daily bread.”

Consulting, starting microbusinesses—those with five or fewer employees—and other forms of self-employment are a natural fit, says Tay K. McNamara, codirector of research at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work. “Self-employment offers independence and flexible work hours. Those are advantages older adults really value.”

Self-employment can range from just hanging out a shingle to complex ventures requiring a business plan, advisers and outside financing. Many who start out with trepidation wind up successful and satisfied, often surprising even themselves.

Before he was laid off, Glay had never been tempted to go out on his own. “I didn’t want the hassle, the paperwork, or the headaches,” he says. He changed his mind after attending a dot-com workshop. A professional drummer, Glay owns a collection of vintage drums and accessories valued at $100,000 to $150,000. “I realized I could start an online business on a shoestring, since I’ve already got inventory,” says Glay.

He expects to spend about $5,000 on website development. Besides selling drums, he has created vintagedrumsandmore.com, a Web site for his company, Crash Boom Bam. “I want this to be a destination site for collectors, drum geeks, and anybody interested in vintage instruments,” he says.

But is it smart to launch a start-up in a sour economy? “If we look at the last four or five recessions, they don’t seem to matter to people starting a business,” says Kauffman’s Stangler. “If you’re driven by an idea, a recession won’t slow you down. In fact, it might spur you on and give you a wider pool of potential employees and less competition.”

 

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