As an entrepreneur who, for the second time, set up in in later life, I became interested in the specific challenges older women entrepreneurs face. With encouragement and some trepidation, I enrolled at Aston Business School to undertake doctoral research leading to a DBA (Doctor of Business Research).
As is widely known, the economic implications of an ageing population are considerable; a shrinking tax base, increased pressure on pension schemes and spiralling health and social care costs to name but a few. As more and more people aged 50 and older set up in business, there are opportunities to alleviate these negative pressures. Across the United Kingdom entrepreneurial activity among the 50-64 age group has increased significantly from 5.3% in 2015 to 8% in 2016. Moreover, research to date shows that companies started by older people tend to have a 70% chance of surviving the crucial first five years compared to only 28% for those started by younger people.
But, despite this trend, the gap between the rate of male and female venture creation has widened. It is still, therefore, much less likely for a woman to be involved in entrepreneurial activity in later life than an older man. My research has aimed to understand why this gap exists.
But for those older women, who decide to take up this option and have the ideas, energy, health and resources, setting up in business can become a means of supplementing insufficient retirement income or of providing a rewarding alternative to unsatisfactory previous employment, especially when no longer burdened with family responsibilities.
I conducted interviews in Scotland, England and Wales with 32 individuals, both men and women, aged from 49 to 80 and was particularly interested in the events, as experienced by my interviewees, leading them to either consider or to set up a business venture or to reject the idea of entrepreneurial activity as an option for later life.
By analysing each personal story, I gained an understanding of the specific circumstances of each interviewee, that had driven them to entrepreneurship and the key barriers and challenges each person needed to overcome to pursue their ambition. I was particularly interested in the wider external factors influencing entrepreneurial intention including the role of family and friends and support initiatives in the decision process to set up in business in later life.
In the process of reviewing literature on this topic, I discovered that, in general, compared to established fields such as family business and business growth, there has been considerably less research devoted to entrepreneurship in later life with even less acknowledgement of gender differences. I felt an opportunity had been lost to develop a more nuanced narrative of older entrepreneurship. If these differences can be understood and addressed through economic policy, major gains for the economy could be the outcome.
What are my initial findings?
Inadequate or non-existent pension provision is a driver prompting women in later life to explore entrepreneurship as an option to boost income. Difficulty in finding paid employment later in life can lead to ‘reluctant entrepreneurs’ – women who would prefer to be employed but set up in business almost as a last resort, despite their worries about an uncertain income and potential debt.
Lack of role models is a factor preventing women in later life from setting up in business, as are concerns about their age. These concerns among the female interviewees were linked to their view of how society perceives them. Thus, the approval of family and friends was a key factor in their decision-making process. Caring responsibilities can also create reluctant entrepreneurs among older women, some of whom would prefer to pursue voluntary and leisure activities rather than set up in business.
Lack of time to focus on developing a business idea is a significant barrier for many older women, who find they are under pressure to fulfil domestic and caring responsibilities. There was also a clear need for more targeted, confidence-boosting business advice for older women. Happily, however, despite reservations about their abilities to set up and run a business, my female interviewees were more willing to take the risks associated with setting up in business than their male counterparts!