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Entrepreneurs are often imagined as twenty-something recent college dropouts. But in fact, people ages 45 to 64 start businesses at higher rates than do their younger peers -- and plenty of seniors are in startup mode, too. Economics correspondent Paul Solman visits a New York City center that helps older adults upgrade their technology skills and realize their entrepreneurial dreams.
There might be a stereotype of the 20-something start-up entrepreneur, but older people start businesses at higher rates than their younger counterparts.
Correspondent Paul Solman visited a New York City tech center that is helping seniors realize their start-up dreams, part of a new series about older workers we're calling Unfinished Business, part of our weekly look at economics, Making Sense.
Let the fashion show begin.
For a group of designers in Manhattan's Chelsea district, senior moments to remember.
Former recreational therapist Virginia Hamlin modeling her handmade scarves.
I'm 75. I'm at level 75.
Knitter Madelyn Rich, a former paralegal and social worker.
I'll be 75 next month.
Arline Rubin, who makes clothes with recycled material, was a professor for 35 years.
I'm 84 years old.
But this is a venue for much more than fashion statements.
If you have a smartphone, and the phone is smarter than you, you need to go to Senior Planet.
Nowadays, every day, in locations across the country, Senior Planet teaches Americans 60 and over the basics of cyberspace, from video streaming to job search.
If you don't have social media, it will appear like you don't know what's going on.
Founder Tom Kamber's first senior client was a woman in her 80s.
And once a week, she would come to my office with her breakfast in a napkin, and we would do a computer class.
And over the course of a year, she learned a lot about technology, but I learned a lot more about aging, and a lot more about the magic of what happens with older people when you bring together computers and seniors and you give them a chance to succeed with it.
I needed support.
Even though Bonnie MacKay had been a hotshot retail designer at Bloomingdale's and then New York's Museum of Modern art. Now 68, she's consulting and, thanks to Senior Planet, cultivating a younger clientele online.
Yes, she still has customers from the past.
But you still have to communicate, and you still have to — you have to do LinkedIn, and you still have to do social media, and you still have to communicate with the cross-generational.
She has no plans to throw in the towel.
Sixty-six-year-old Cheryl "The Gourd Lady" Thomas, who plays and sells African instruments fashioned from gourds, is not about to bow out either.
I'm still perpendicular. I still have my health, and I'm just constantly on the go, doing, doing, doing, and just trying not to think negatively, and being around positive people.
The main virtue of Senior Planet for her?
It's become an extended family for me.
For so many older people, working on is critical to well-being, says Tom Kamber.
And there's a lot of research about how important it is for people to still be activated and have a purpose and be trying to be creative in their later years.
I don't know if these colors look great for you.
Like Madelyn Rich, her creativity inspired by a chilly ride on the New York subway.
By the time I got home, I had a stiff neck. And I pulled out my yarn, and I started knitting. And two days later…
Wait, this is a New York subway over-air-conditioning cowl?
Exactly. My saying is fun, funky, but functional.
A slogan she's learned to hawk online.
For many here, though, like milliner Carlos Lewis, 73, Senior Planet begins as remedial ed in low tech.
I was a dummy, don't know a computer, couldn't type. Now I can type. Now I can actually partially build a Web site. Now I can send a picture to a client.
Did you think you would be working at this age?
Working at this age? No, because I thought that the business that I started, I thought it would be, like, really, really long, ongoing.
But he took a financial hit when his hat factory went bust, now markets custom pieces to private clients. Income is an even more pressing concern for The Gourd Lady.
Just keeping the roof over my head. I don't get regular, steady paychecks. And I get residencies, and they are temporary. So I'm always looking for the next residency, the next sale, the next source of income.
Cheryl Thomas' Senior Planet goal? To sell her instruments on Etsy, so she can start saving for retirement. She's 66, remember.
I was just so busy, always looking for the next dollar to keep the roof over the head. And, of course, now, being older, I realize, oh. And I'm like 60 came so fast. I have saved I don't know how many times, but then I have had to use it.
Twenty percent to 25 percent of the people that come in the doors here are looking to improve their financial situation. They are looking for a job. They are looking to save money by shopping online.
Or there is some business idea that they have been percolating for years, and now they're 65, and they suddenly have an opening in their life to say, I want to start that business.
According to the Kauffman Foundation, in 2018, the 55-to-64-age group made up 26 percent of new entrepreneurs, a larger share than their younger counterparts.
Baby boomers turn out to be twice as likely to start a business within the next year as millennials. Senior Planet is teaching the tech savvy that passed so many seniors by.
There's is a downside in becoming acclimated to cyberspace, says Cheryl Thomas.
I told my instructor it was his fault. He said, why? What? What did I do now? You introduced me to Spotify. I spent a whole day at home on Spotify just going through and collecting songs and things. I was like, wow, this is great.
Great, but not exactly income-producing.
On the other hand, says Tom Kamber, older entrepreneurs aren't looking to strike it rich.
Entrepreneurship turns out to be different for younger people vs. older people. When you talk to a 20-year-old and they're starting a business — and I know a lot of those — they have this whole dream of, you start the business up and then you get bought out by a big company and they buy you out, right?
When we get older, our horizons become a little shorter. And so we start realizing, well, geez, I might have 20 years or 10 years to execute something that really represents me as a person on this Earth. For many people, they have been waiting a long time to do that stuff.
Like the designers on the runway at Senior Planet. And that's why Tom Kamber calls this a senior moment.
Ageism is one of the last really accepted areas where people will engage with some really negative stereotyping and negative biases, and act as if it's normal.
So, for example, somebody just the other day used the word senior moment in front of me, and I had that I had to not, you know, like, throttle them, because a senior moment — can you imagine if your demographic was defined as the demographic that forgot things?
To me, a senior moment is about being honest, because seniors are much more honest and much more willing to speak their mind than younger people. They're more confident. They know who they are. They have experience. They have some judgment. They have perspective. Those are senior things.
And, often, they're less paralyzingly self-conscious as well.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman in New York City.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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