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The invisible entrepreneurs

Recent research from PBS

Research shows that nearly half of those who are self-employed in the UK are over the age of fifty. However, Government support for older entrepreneurs has diminished, creating barriers to skills and support, and impacting on the development of an ‘entrepreneurial’ identity.

Older entrepreneurs can find it difficult to fit within the dominant enterprise culture which tends to frame entrepreneurship as an activity for younger individuals.

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of an entrepreneur? Is it a twenty-something tapping at a laptop, drinking a flat white, designing the next ground-breaking app? You may be right. But you, and the rest of society, are forgetting someone. Research by Dr. Lucia Garcia-Lorenzo and Ms. Winnie W.L. Yao investigates the experiences of the huge number of entrepreneurs over the age of fifty and finds that they are under-represented, under-researched and under-supported, preventing them from making a success of their ventures and from receiving sufficient support from policymakers.

There is great enthusiasm for entrepreneurs in the UK. This enthusiasm has increased since the 2008 financial crisis, as a way of boosting the economy and supporting employment. According to the ONS, 4.5 million people in the U.K. were self-employed in 2015, accounting for 15% of the workforce. Of that, 43% were over the age of 50, and more startlingly, self-employment in the over 65s doubled since 2008 – a trend that is expected to continue. However, support for older entrepreneurs has been diminished, with policies such ‘New Deal 50 plus’ replaced with more generic schemes. This is particularly poignant at a time when Government continues to voice concern over the financial burden of older people without properly understanding the opportunities they have the potential for.

In a series of fifty five in-depth interviews and the analysis of policy documents, public reports and media materials, Garcia-Lorenzo and Yao, embarked on a close-up of the personal experiences of ‘necessity entrepreneurs’ - individuals who are pushed into entrepreneurial activities by their circumstances such as un or underemployment - within the current social, cultural and institutional UK context.

Older necessity entrepreneurs face ante-structural conditions and must overcome institutional invisibility and a dominant cultural narrative of ‘entrepreneurs’. The popular view of entrepreneurs is that they are young, powerful and on the path to great success. This narrative is unhelpful in that it represents an ideal, or 'type', that older entrepreneurs cannot live up to. Despite investing time and energy into developing their venture, including communicating with clients, businesses and political institutions, they face ageist barriers and discrimination. On an institutional level, this is apparent in the lack of targeted support. In a wider, cultural context, this is visible through the dominant picture built of ‘entrepreneurs’ as young and successful. These images essentially write older ‘necessity’ entrepreneurs out of the picture and much of their energy instead goes into building the ‘entrepreneurial’ identity and being accepted by society.

The way older necessity entrepreneurs are represented and supported by Government and policy making needs to be addressed. We have all grown accustomed to the economic and societal issues and challenges that face an ageing population, including an increased retirement age. Older entrepreneurship can provide social benefits, and on an individual level help manage a flexible work-life balance and subvert age discrimination. Older entrepreneurs represent the potential for reduced costs to the welfare system and overcoming unemployment. Garcia-Lorenzo and Yao argue that the view of entrepreneurs needs to be addressed, not as a set of criteria based on identity or environmental constraints, but to look at the creative process - what develops in the interactions between would-be entrepreneurs and their social and institutional contexts, and to rebalance the view of entrepreneurship from solely wealth creation. With older 'necessity' entrepreneurs increasing we need to rethink the question 'who is an entrepreneur?' to truly understand this phenomenon and benefit from the skills and expertise they can offer.