Millennial and boomer entrepreneurship is a fast-growing, emerging field of research. Studies have examined how entrepreneurs from those generations interact, and the barriers and motivations of each generation. New research features post-retirement entrepreneurial entrance, how student loans impact entrepreneurship, and what age is most typical for startups.
While entrepreneurs' age when they start a business is not often addressed, with the aging population, longer overall life expectancy, shifting work-life balance at different stages in our lives, and renewing understanding of entrepreneurship in our changing economy, age becomes a more and more relevant measure for entrepreneurs. While millennials face various barriers to become entrepreneurs, so do boomers. Entrepreneurship is not necessarily a privilege of the young or the old, but each age stage and each life course is associated with unique attributes of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities. Entrepreneurs can be pushed or pulled into starting a business on their own at any age. Knowing various occupational options is important to understand age and entrepreneurship. For older cohorts, their entrepreneurship is often not just an economic phenomenon, but also a fiscal, social, health, and even lifestyle necessity. Therefore, understanding different driving factors, barriers, types, impacts, and variations of entrepreneurship at different age stages is critical to understand entrepreneurship and its related policy implications.
Millennials have established fewer and fewer companies since the early 2000s, and they have gotten more entrepreneurial training comparing compared to with the other older age groups (Kauffman 2015). However, millennials have faced several challenges. First, the Great Recession and financial crisis from subprime mortgage lending have forced millennials to start up businesses in negative financial conditions. Moreover, they do not have their own early-stage capital financial sources such as savings, nor experience that helps position the business competitively, such as through innovation, as compared with the older generation (Ortmans 2015). As an example, many do not have much seed money from real estate investment wealth because of their younger age. Additionally, because many suffered from the mortgage crisis, they could not build wealth through housing as many did in older generations (Kauffman 2015). Haynes, Walker, Rowe, and Hong (1999) also examine the resources used when people start new ventures, and found young business owners are more likely to use family resources in a business than are older entrepreneurs.
Second, millennial or younger entrepreneurs have smaller or fewer personal networks, which are considered important assets for entrepreneurs during the start-up process (Robinson and Stubberud 2014) (Baucus and Human 1994) (De Kok, Ichou, and Verheul 2010). De Kok et al. (2010) indicated that younger founders could have had less time to establish their networks, and thus have less access to information regarding the start-up process or governmental supports, as examples (Maas and Herrington 2006).
Third, millennials have less life and work experience (De Kok et al. 2010) (Weber and Schaper 2004) compared to older generation. That experience, whether professional or personal, can prove valuable when starting a new business (Stangler 2014), which makes younger entrepreneurs less likely to be successful in their business because lack of experience. Competency is one of the reasons businesses fail (Gudmundsson and Lechner 2013), which often develops over the course of one's life.
On the other hand, millennials have high levels of post-secondary education achievement (Peters, Storey, and Cressy 1999)(Weber and Schaper 2004), which normally results in the establishment of stronger ventures (Kauffman 2015). Millennial entrepreneurs are more responsive to new information and adjust their expectations significantly faster in response to new information than older entrepreneurs do (Parker 2006). In addition, they tend to record more and process new information using new information technology. It is helpful and valuable to develop new business and search for the opportunities related to those competitive advantages compared to the other generations (Minola, Criaco, and Cassia 2014). The younger generation also tends to exhibit more aggressiveness and stamina (Sapienza and Grimm 1997), which leads them to engage in their business more proactively (Parker 2006) and attain their goals more easily than older generations (Minola et al. 2014).
Ronstadt (1986) explains that younger entrepreneurs tend to exhibit more serial start-up behavior and exit more often throughout their entrepreneurial career. He indicates that entrepreneurs who start new business at younger ages tend to have longer entrepreneurial careers, noting that "early planning for an entrepreneurial career is correlated with longer careers not just because they start earlier but because they last longer." Also, younger entrepreneurs create multiple ventures more when they exit as compared to other generations. Ronstadt also argues that younger entrepreneurs have a greater willingness for entrepreneurship and tend to be more thoughtful and apt to plan and start their own businesses.
Younger entrepreneurs are also motivated by different factors than older generations (Minola et al. 2014). Parry and Urwin (2011) indicate that the millennial generation considers loyalty less valuable. Ng and Gossett (2013) found that the millennial generation would work harder when given a meaningful job that provides intrinsic rewards rather than the extrinsic rewards as compared with previous generations who wanted more extrinsic compensation. Kim-Soon, Ahmad, Saberi, and Tat (2013) found that the main motivators for the millennial generation stem from their serious intention to start and establish their own business. It indicates that millennial entrepreneurs are motivated by "pulled factors" rather than "pushed factors." "Pushed and pulled factors" refer to "entrepreneurship reflecting the voluntary pursuit of opportunity ["pulled"] and that reflecting a necessity to engage in entrepreneurship when there is an absence of employment opportunities ["pushed"]" (Reynolds, Camp, Bygrave, Autio, and Camp 2001, p. xv). Younger entrepreneurs lack a great deal of prior work experience, and thus dissatisfaction or uncontrolled departing from previous employment would not have been a significant concern for entrepreneurs’ intentions (Segal, Borgia, and Schoenfeld 2005). In addition, Cull (2006) explains that young entrepreneurs consider recognition important, stating "this might be having a recognizable brand or getting tangible benefits for energies put into the business" (p. 12). Cull also explains that young entrepreneurs feel it is important to know ways to be adjustable to whatever change might come about.
Regarding the business success, previous studies argue that younger entrepreneurs tend to be less successful in terms of surviving; many newly started ventures fail to endure the first three years (e.g., Biehl, Gurley-Calvez, and Hill 2013; Kautonen, Van Gelderen, and Tornikoski 2013). Weber and Schaper (2007) examine business success using several criteria such as longevity of the enterprise, consumer demand, and self-perceived levels of success. They show that younger entrepreneurs are less likely to succeed in all indicators, such as a longer business lifespan. Kamm, Shuman, Seeger, and Nurick (1990) also indicate that young entrepreneurs have more difficulty starting businesses because they take on more business risk, which increases the probability of failing. Baron and Ensley (2006) provided the results of less-experienced (correlated to age) entrepreneurs who have had less clear business opportunity and show that this can lead to failure of the new business.
In addition, millennial entrepreneurs appear more vibrant in certain regions. For example, Salkowitz (2010) indicated that most millennial entrepreneurs are positioned in developing and emerging economies. This is related to institutional environments, which might limit the access of the millennial entrepreneurs; however, millennials in developing and emerging countries are constrained as a result of resource shortages, which form how they search for opportunities to start new ventures or lead to new products (Lingelbach, Patino, and Pitta 2011). Rather, millennial entrepreneurs tend to use more social-media-based marketing techniques to connect with early adopters. Millennial entrepreneurs also try to find relationships and establish mentorship relationships (Rainer & Rainer 2011) because they do not have work or social experiences; mentoring related to millennial entrepreneurs is examined by previous studies (Moulson 2015).
Annually, from 1996 to 2007, entrepreneurial activity demonstrated a higher rate for those between the ages of 55 and 64 than for those aged 20–34. Additionally, research has shown that founders of technology ventures in the United States are predominantly positioned in the middle-aged group rather than the under 25 group (Wadhwa, Freeman, and Rissing 2010). Middle-aged entrepreneurs (35–55 years) typically need to determine their own future economic success, career, and individual identity over the potential benefits of being an employee (Greenhaus, Callanan, and Godshalk 2009).
Baruch (2004) explains that middle-aged individuals might not have obvious goals. According to him, the middle-aged generation typically takes a holistic approach to life, which considers family, interests, and quality of life. They try to maintain a work-life balance that might be secured well by a previous career as an employee. Middle-aged people are more likely to become entrepreneurs than other age groups (Reynolds, Hay, and Camp 1999)(Langowitz, Minniti, and Arenius 2005); however, previous studies have shown that, even though middle-aged entrepreneurs have more freedom from their own business (self-employed), they tend to work longer hours (Hornaday and Aboud 1971). Thus, middle-aged entrepreneurs might have more work–family conflict (Carlson and Perrewé 1999) and tend to be more exposed to stress (Kets de Vries 2006)(Baù, Chirico, and Zahra 2013) than younger or older generations.
In addition, previous studies about middle-aged entrepreneurs have mainly focused on the firm performance or venture success. For example, Henley (2005) finds an inverse U-shaped relationship between the age of entrepreneurs and the amount of job creation, which indicates that "the most successful job creators appear to be in middle age" (p. 190). Storey (1994) finds evidence for an inverse U-shaped relationship between the founder's age and firms' employment growth (i.e., firm size growth) after seven years. He argues that middle-aged entrepreneurs create new ventures that have better potential for growth. Similarly, Botham and Graves (2009) found that new business growth is highest for middle-aged entrepreneurs and lower for entrepreneurs of other age groups. Moreover, Brüderl and Preisendörfer (2000) indicated that the relationship between age and fast-growing firms is an inverse U-shape; the percentage of fast-growing firms is highest for middle-aged entrepreneurs. Previous studies have shown that women entrepreneurs are more successful and are more likely to be middle-aged. Alam, Jani, and Omar (2011) investigated the success of women entrepreneurs in Malaysia, and found that most of them were middle-aged and in the service industry. Sanyang and Huang (2008) show that women between their mid-30s and mid-40s are more likely to set up their own businesses. Family support, social ties, and internal motivation affect positively and significantly to the success of women entrepreneurs in the small business.
Hart, Anyadike-Danes, and Blackburn (2004) showed that the difference between middle-aged entrepreneurs and the older-aged group is in the type of industry. Middle-aged entrepreneurs established new companies in business services and agricultural activities, while the older generation tended to start new business activities in the retail and consumer services sector.
Entrepreneurship among older adults is largely under researched and underestimated. Most people do not associate entrepreneurship with older adults; many believe that even if older adults are entrepreneurs, it is mainly out of necessity or only the serial entrepreneurs who began at a younger age. Whether entrepreneurship among older adults is worth investigating is still much in question, and how to define and classify older adults' entrepreneurial activities is largely untouched.
Despite the collision of the recent large-scale economic downturn and the entrance of the first baby boomer cohort into wage-and-salary retirement ages, self-employment continues to be an important alternative to retirement in later life for older adults (Cahill, Giandrea, and Quinn 2013). The prevalence of self-employment increases substantially with age, both because self-employed people work longer, and because many wage-and-salary workers, i.e., those working for others, turn to self-employment in later life (Cahill et al. 2013). In fact, around 18 percent of employed persons over age 65 are self-employed.
Most relevant studies address older adults' self-employment, but not their entrepreneurship. Zhang (2008) distinguished the difference between self-employment and entrepreneurship and defined older adults' entrepreneurship by incorporated and unincorporated self-employment in knowledge-based economic sectors.
As life expectancy has increased, boomers have become a significant economic force. Boomers are highly individualistic and believe they can achieve anything. In addition, they have higher expectations for life (Kauffman 2015) and are considered workaholics. They think hard work is important because, in their minds, hard work equals financial success (Glass 2007). Recently, the baby-boomer generation has begun to reach retirement age, which has been argued to bring about one of the biggest potential economic and fiscal challenges across countries (Kautonen, Down, and South 2008).
Many of the boomer generation (1946–1964) became entrepreneurs during the information technology revolution in the 1980s and 1990s; a good number of those are today’s serial entrepreneurs. These serial boomer entrepreneurs tend to have a higher success rate than other ages or non-serial entrepreneurs. The boomer generation has bred more new entrepreneurs in older ages from necessity and a longer life expectancy (Kauffman 2015). On the other hand, as boomer entrepreneurs have gotten older, their entrepreneurial activity may have become less economically important; older entrepreneurs in the boomer generation tend to have a higher number of dropout rates in labor force participation and do not create growing business (Kauffman 2015).
The factors affecting older adults' entrepreneurial propensity include wealth, health, health insurance coverage and portability, education, marital status, prior experience, family responsibility, social and cultural openness and tolerance level, and tax rates, among others (Zhang 2008)(Zhang and Carr 2014)(Cahill et al. 2013). Older adults' entrepreneurship not only is an important economic driver for regional economic growth in the U.S., but it also enhances the United States' Social Security Fund Surplus (Zhang 2008) and potentially has positive health effects when controlling for job stress, working hours, prior health conditions, and other individual and household attributes (Zhang and Carr 2014).
Ucbasaran, Lockett, Wright, and Westhead (2003) explained that older individuals have a more positive approach for developing business because they are less volatile, so older and more mature entrepreneurs have a lower turnover rate of businesses—even if their expectations are not satisfied. Weber and Schaper (2004) mention that males are more predominant in the group of older entrepreneurs.
In terms of financial health, boomers are estimated to have the largest proportion of disposable income and accumulated wealth compared to other age groups (Zhang 2008). Boomer entrepreneurs are more likely to have more financial resources to start their businesses than younger entrepreneurs, since older entrepreneurs have a larger endowment of financial capital (Haynes et al. 1999)(Minola et al. 2014). Regarding financing, Liao, Welsch, and Pistrui (2003) show that older entrepreneurs use more personal savings when financing a business, and they are forced to depend on financial support from their external network rather than family members (Minola et al. 2014). In addition, boomer's career transitions and occupational choices are considered important; boomers' entrepreneurship has attracting rising attention (Zolin 2015).
Outside of those who are already self-employed as they age, people become self-employed in later life in response to both push and pull mechanisms (Weber and Schaper 2004) (Zhang 2008) (De Kok et al. 2010). Zhang (2008) explained "push" and "pull" factors using gerontology theories and utility maximization theories. Gerontology theories (such as role theory, disengagement theory, activity theory, continuity theory, and social constructionism theory) explain why boomers become self-employed from social, biological, and life-course change perspectives. Utility maximization theories explain this from boomers' choice between work and leisure to maximize their utility.
As a motivating factor, boomer entrepreneurs are more often pushed. Push factors are negative influences such as insufficient retirement funds, inadequacies in current pension entitlements (Weber and Schaper 2004), unemployment, or dissatisfaction with the present income earned, and are common reasons for entrepreneurs in the boomer generation to start new businesses (Weber and Schaper 2004)(Zhang 2008)(De Kok et al. 2010).
Older workers' employment situations are often tenuous in times of economic uncertainty, in part because both their salaries are higher and perceptions exist that they are less able to learn new skills. Coupled with factors associated with age discrimination, older workers were hit harder by the recent economic downturn than any other age group. Rather than being pushed out of the labor force completely, when faced with difficult options, many older workers choose self-employment (Zhang 2008). Older persons are less likely to find alternate career opportunities (Kautonen 2008) (Zhang 2008).
Additionally, as cost of living has continuously increased globally, many boomers are pushed into self-employment, and as life expectancy is longer, boomers have to care for themselves longer than previous generations (Greenwood 2006). Moreover, some baby boomers have not kept enough money to continue their standard of living during retirement (Tremblay 2008), so self-employment becomes a choice for older workers who need to remain employed when wage-and-salary positions are not available or who feel their jobs no longer effectively utilize their human capital.
More positive pull mechanisms, such as an interest in personal or financial success, lead older persons to consider starting a new business (Getz and Carlsen 2000)(King 2002)(Weber and Schaper 2004)(Zhang 2008). Zhang (2008) also argued that older people may find the opportunity for a flexible work schedule attractive because of the ability to balance work with other life activities that are important during the early stages of later life such as self-care, volunteering, caregiving, or leisure activities. In this way, self-employment provides a model of employment that facilitates greater control and flexibility.
As explained by socio-emotional selectivity theory, as people age, their focus tends to change from career and family goals to opportunities that allow them to focus on emotionally meaningful activities. Thus, self-employment itself may be a meaningful way for some to participate in economic activities, but it may also offer the flexibility to mix paid work with other unpaid meaningful activities.
Many seniors would also like to continue to fulfill their life by making good use of their invaluable human capital and wisdom. After working numerous years in life, seniors have accumulated abundant work experience, management skills, wisdom, networks, and business ties, and they tend to be more ethical and loyal than younger generations. Seniors also have better language skills, as explained in Zhang (2008). Language skills rely on crystallized intelligence, or one's ability to use learned knowledge and experience. For that, as age increases, a person’s language skills and experience in using the language get better; it is an accumulated skill. This differs from fluid intelligence, which is the ability to learn new things and adapt to new situations.Human capital is the driver for our current knowledge economy, and in this context, seniors with robust soft skills and human capital are a particularly valuable asset to our economy.
Demen-Meier and Klimke (2012) indicated that boomer entrepreneurs start their own business because of either being pushed or pulled depending on their individual circumstances surrounding money, time, and experiences. It is evident that financial condition is the initial motivator in most cases, but the motivation has been changed from profit priority to lifestyle focus. This is because older people who are nascent entrepreneurs tend to start businesses with financial or personal needs, but at a later stage of business with more business and entrepreneurial experience, older entrepreneurs are more likely to be motivated by pull factors (Demen-Meier and Klimke 2012).
Regardless of whether push or pull mechanisms lead to self-employment, self-employment can provide a way for older people to utilize their human capital to produce income for their own needs and benefit the overall economy.
Older adults’ entrepreneurship has had positive economic, fiscal, and health impacts. Using U.S. Census data, Zhang (2008) found that post-retirement age adults who switched from wage-and-salary jobs to self-employment had a strong positive impact on regional economic growth (measured by personal income) than younger entrepreneurs. Zhang (2008) also detected a positive fiscal impact as a result of older individuals choosing self-employment, which not only increased the regional employment and tax base, but directly enlarged the U.S. Social Security fund surplus. Further, Zhang and Carr (2014) tested the health impact of older individuals' occupational choice for self-employment and found a healthier physical and mental condition as a whole for the self-employed compared to the wage-and-salary employees after two years of being self-employed.
Older entrepreneurs' companies perform better because of their previous experience and skills so their businesses are less reliant on external sources (Minola et al. 2014). Despite negative impacts from economic recession, older entrepreneurs may overall be more financially secure, which make financial risks less prominent when starting a new venture (Stangler 2014).
One barrier younger entrepreneurs face that isn't a challenge for older entrepreneurs is student debt (Reedy and Morelix 2014); older entrepreneurs can usually borrow from a bank more comfortably. Banks lend money more readily when firms perform well, and older entrepreneurs' firms tend to make more profit (Minola and Giorgino 2011). Financial institutions might prefer to invest their money in projects planned by older entrepreneurs (Minola, Cassia, and Criaco 2013) since their firms tend to be less risky investments than companies started by younger entrepreneurs, which enables the older individuals to initially "better capitalize on previous knowledge and experience for faster entrepreneurial learning" (Zolin 2015, p.1094). Older founders can develop know-how over a longer time through industry experience and management experience, which helps the older entrepreneur to bypass errors while managing a new firm (Steiner and Solem 1988).
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Page last updated 23 September 2016
Ting Zhang - Assistant Professor, University of Baltimore, Editor