We have been hearing a lot about the ageing of the workforce recently. The topic will figure in Age Concern’s conference in April this year. It is a particular area of research interest for me. In my blogs I have listed the pros and cons of “staying on” in the paid workforce; described the attitudes of employers; and given examples of adjustments that forward-looking employers are making to retain the wisdom and expertise of their older workers. I have also written about unpaid and caring work in later life, upon which many of our organisations and communities rely.
But there is a dimension to this debate which has received less attention. Among the choices which people have as they contemplate work in later life – part-time, part-week or part-year employment; casual and seasonal work – there is also self-employment. A rather grander way of putting this would be entrepreneurship – setting up a business and working for yourself.
What better way to realise the potential of older workers and to capitalise on their lifelong experience and skills than for them to create enterprises of their own.
What do we know about the older self-employed in New Zealand?
A common definition of “older entrepreneurs” is men and women who started or who are considering starting a new enterprise after the age of 50. To me this sounds rather young, but 50 plus is an internationally recognised threshold. Many countries define older workers as aged 50 plus (not too nice to think about when your children are not too far off this threshold!).
The NZ Census does not have a work status category for entrepreneurs at any age – assuming the above definition of entrepreneurship. But there is some data on self-employment – a related concept.
According to Statistics NZ figures, there were nearly 162,000 people aged 50 plus who declared themselves as self-employed in 2014. This had risen from 139,000 in 2000. The majority of these are men, but the female numbers have been growing rapidly since 2000, so that now almost one in three older self-employed people are women (see table below).
Within the 50 plus age group, between 2000 and 2014, the numbers of self-employed men and women aged 50-54 decreased, but there was substantial growth in the 60-64 and 65 plus age groups (see graphs). The same was true for women, adding in the 55-59 age group, although the numbers were lower.
This reminds me of something I read a long time ago. In 1980, Nick Zepke put forward a scenario for New Zealand of a compulsory retirement age of 45, after which people would become self-employed . They would be part of a small scale “household economy”. Perhaps I could use this idea in my own mental picture. The age should be 60. After this people could either teach the skills they had learned through their working lives or, with subsidies (in terms of management training and seed funding), start up new enterprises to contribute to the economy and create jobs. I think it is worth thinking about.
Next time I will follow this up, looking at why self-employment/entrepreneurship might be attractive to older people.
 Harpham, M., Wilkins, P. and Zepke, N. (1980) Picture of the Futures. Mallinson Rendel Publishers, Wellington. Harpham and Zepke were then on the staff of the Commission for the Future, which was abolished by the government in the late 1980s.