In Summary

Heavy job losses in manufacturing and aviation this year – and more to come – will require “out-of-the-box” thinking by governments to help displaced workers. The usual response, reskilling older workers, will not be enough as the population ages.

With real foresight, Federal and State governments could develop policy to encourage a sharp increase in “seniorpreneurship” – those aged over 50 starting a business that aspires for growth, not just a lifestyle for its owner.

Done well, we could help some older workers create their next job, out of necessity, or to pursue an opportunity.

Governments are fooling themselves if they try to help all displaced older workers through traditional thinking. Although important, re-training programs will not stem the tide of unemployed older workers seeking full- or part-time jobs.

Yes, high-profile job losses in the car industry and at Qantas are tiny in the scheme of Australia’s vast labour market. But where will tens of thousands of new jobs for older workers magically appear? What proportion of retrenched older workers find equivalent full-time employment?

The supply of older people seeking work will increase as the population ages, and as retirement savings run out. Australia’s fastest-growing age group is now 65 and over, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

And what of demand for older workers? Will more Australian companies prematurely – and stupidly – throw older workers on the scrapheap as they slash costs?

Will age discrimination become more entrenched as big companies favour cheaper, younger workers over older workers, and sack people earlier in their career? 

You bet it will.

We cannot rely only on displaced older workers applying for a new job. Some must be capable of creating their next job. The foundation is there if governments realise the potential of seniorpreneurship to address a small piece of the jobs puzzle for older workers.

I know what you’re thinking: most redundant older workers have no interest in starting a venture. They just want a job to pay the bills. Fair enough. However, I’d argue a lack of awareness about seniorpreneurship, and poor policy settings to encourage it, limit the potential.

Some will argue “seniors” and “entrepreneurship” do not mix – that start-up entrepreneurship is a young person’s game: smart, creative, innovative, technology savvy twenty-and thirtysomethings who take big risks and have time to recover from failure.

In theory, senior entrepreneurs have less capacity for risk. Their savings must finance retirement, not a new venture. Declining health, weaker motivation and less understanding of technology are potential obstacles.

What rubbish! It’s wrong to suggest over-50s cannot or should not engage in start-up entrepreneurship. Nobody should be defined by their age – I know some seventy-year-olds who are healthier and more motivated than people half their age. And how many 60-year-old even think of themselves as ‘seniors’ in retirement these days?

Overseas research has found seniorpreneurs are more capable of starting and managing a venture than their younger peers. Their experience, networks and greater resources are huge advantages.

Its particularly suits older people leaving the workforce now – or a few years out of it – before work skills and personal networks fade.  It’s why governments must act on this topic now.

We need to know more about seniorpreneurship. There is little local academic research on the topic in Australia and barely any dedicated policies. The closest is probably the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) and its course for socially disadvantaged older people.

Swinburne University entrepreneurship researcher Dr Alex Maritz is among the few to have researched the benefits of seniorpreneurship in Australia.

Maritz has written an important whitepaper on the topic: Senior Entrepreneurship in Australia: Active Ageing and Extending Workforce Lives and has called on governments to foster a culture of seniorpreneurship.

His paper should be mandatory reading for politicians worried about the implications of an aging workforce, and searching for answers to help displaced older workers.

“Australia has a significant lack of entrepreneurship policy and initiatives aimed at the 50-plus market, which provides opportunity to enhance this activity even further,” says Maritz. “To the best of our knowledge, there are no empirical studies in Australia regarding this phenomenon.”

That is a shame. As Maritz notes, other developed economies are showing greater interest in developing policies to help senior entrepreneurs.

Yet again, they are leaving Australia behind in their thinking on the economic and community benefits of entrepreneurship, and on its potential to help displaced older workers – and those who voluntarily leave work to pursue a business opportunity.

Drawing on the excellent OECD 2013 report on senior entrepreneurship, and on the work of offshore researchers, Maritz makes several preliminary recommendations on policy interventions:

- “Creating positive awareness of entrepreneurship as a late-career option with the aim of educating and training senior entrepreneurs, as well as different stakeholder groups, to remove negative age or gender bias as a potential barrier to senior entrepreneurship.

- Enhancing entrepreneurial intentions and self-belief in the 50-plus age-group.

- Developing entrepreneurship education and training specific to the needs of senior entrepreneurs.

- Avoiding jargon in communication and information and the way procedures and regulations are communicated and targeted to this age group.

- Training mentors, facilitators and enterprise support officials in appropriate communication skills; acknowledging older entrepreneurs’ experience and skills; and avoiding unnecessary red tape.

- Encouraging skilled and experienced older individuals to participate in mentorship and coaching activities. They often have the human and social capital, business experience, empathy and skills to add significant value to entrepreneurs, while being senior entrepreneurs themselves.

- Ensuring start-up financing schemes do not discriminate against older entrepreneurs.

- Reviewing regulations relating to tax systems and social benefit systems to ensure they do not set a disincentive to senior entrepreneurship.

- Legislative support mechanisms for start-up senior entrepreneurs.”

Maritz stresses his research is in an exploratory phase; the recommendations are not yet supported by empirical research, given the lack of study on this topic.

But it is huge step in the right direction. If his paper gets more people thinking about seniorpreneurship – and politicians acting through policy – Australia will start to unlock a vast asset: the potential of older workers to create, innovate and build wealth for themselves and the community, by starting a venture.  

Written by Tony Featherstone, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was published in The Age. You can read the original article here.