Midlife entrepreneurs make up 59.4% of all Australian small business owners, yet little research has been done on their challenges. Until now!
Have you ever had one of those blinding flashes of insight? The sort of thing where nothing around you looks the same ever again?
At the beginning of each year, I think back over my clients, alliance partners, speaking audiences and colleagues from the previous year.
I bring each person and group into my mind and push the replay button on our conversations and our time together to review what worked and where I could improve. (Think of it like the life review you get before death – without the awkward dying part).
My passion is in making complex concepts simple, and helping leaders to improve their skills, their teams and their businesses.
Every year I look for patterns in the people I have come in contact with to try to work out how I can help more people in the coming year.
This year was different.
Not just because of COVID, but because of one major trend that didn’t just jump out at me; it gently unfurled with all the subtlety of a 4000-metre tall giant painted blue who screamed “Look at Moi”.
You see, I realised that almost everyone I had worked with, sat with at networking events, spoken in front of or had strong alliances with in the past year, were over 40. (Ok – most were probably over 45, but it’s rude to ask someone’s age unless they are in pre-school or in an aged care home when this information is literally worn as a badge and shouted to the rooftops).
That realisation had me thinking.
How many small business owners are out there who are in their midlife? Was my experience of the myriad of midlifers over the past 12 months something extreme and unique to me, or were there really an awful lot of midlife entrepreneurs out there?
Beyond the Midlife Crisis
I then started to think about what happens to midlife brains: what works, what superpowers exist now they have grown and what challenges they may face.
When I did my psychology degree way back when I rode my brontosaurus named Rex to class at the Uni of NSW, midlife psychological development was skated over in all my lectures.
We went in-depth through baby mental development, then toddler, then childhood and teenagers. We did a big section on young adults as brains are still forming in the early ’20s and then …. nothing seems to happen …. until suddenly there is another flurry of focus on geriatrics and end of life brains.
Apparently back then it was thought that nothing significant happens to middle-aged brains. You skate from young adulthood to the nursing home with everything pretty much constant.
The middle-aged brain gained a bit of a profile with the release of Gail Sheedy’s book, Passages in 1976. She took some work by Freud, Jung, Elliott and Jacques and mushed it into popularised psychology where she branded it the Mid Life Crisis.
In her theory all midlifers go through a crisis where they suddenly race around with younger partners, buy expensive sportscars and are filled with angst along with new wrinkles and hair sprouting in strange places.
This book was enough to trigger a tiny bit of later research that showed (spoiler alert) that Sheedy was talking out of her hat, and only 10-20% of all midlifers go through MenoPorsche (where blokes get hair transplants and have sudden urges to buy a Porsche).
In most of these Midlife Crisis cases, it was found that these 10-20% of people already had done a few bouts with anxiety or depression over the years. Often their crisis was triggered by an event such as a death, divorce, or job loss ( … and it was mainly rich, Western people who went through it). Yes, it was a midlife crisis, but not something that everyone went through.
If you go digging on brain changes in midlife, you can also find a stack of research on menopause – often sponsored by pharmaceutical companies keen to explore new markets, but the rest of the research on midlife brains is still woefully teeny.
Suppose you think about psychological research as a vast multi-level library. Baby brain development research takes up several floors stacked with floor to ceiling books, as does toddler research. Young children and teenagers get another few floors. Geriatrics and end of lifers get perhaps two floors.
Midlifers – you get half a floor, and this research tends to be focussed on at what point bits of your brain starts to decline. It then skates quickly over to what you can do to stave off dementia.
Invisible Midlife Entrepreneurs
But it gets worse.
I then started to look for the research on midlife and older entrepreneurs.
I was curious if existing training and support to set up or run their businesses hit the mark with midlife business owners, and if there were any particular issues they may face that are different from their younger peers.
Given there are so many midlife entrepreneurs, I thought the research would be plentiful and would be widely cited and used in the development of initiatives and programs. I was expecting at least a couple of rows in the library.
Over the decades of working with the government, universities and small businesses I have honed my research skills. I am the Queen of Google and am known for my ability to find stuff (even the really well hidden stuff).
What did I find?
Reams and reams of research on young start-ups and young entrepreneurs. If you are under 45, you are well covered. You get a whole floor of our imagined library dedicated to your brilliance.
This youth-centric focus is reflected in all the training offerings out there targeted towards “hustle till it hurts”, mompreneurs, or messy misfit 30 somethings, and the thousands of online social media forums and groups for that age bracket. The young entrepreneurs market is more than amply supplied.
But if you are over 45, the approach of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his 2019 address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia is representative of the attitude that older people need to go back and study so they can keep in touch with the jobs market. Midlife and older people are not seen as entrepreneurs but j-o-b fodder, even though 45+ business owners run nearly 60% of all small businesses in Australia.
However, there is a huge demand by midlifers wanting to start their own business.
You can find a stack of books written by US authors about starting a business in midlife, but there is nothing available about what to do once you get there. Everyone assumes you are just an older, wrinklier and greyer version of young entrepreneurs so what works for them “should” work for you. An assumption that is not grounded in any science or research.
University courses are either theoretical and look at the theory of entrepreneurship, or focus only on the start-up phase. Again, nothing about what to do to improve once you are up and running, and definitely nothing targeting midlife entrepreneurs.
There are some fantastic government programs set up to help mentor business owners, but again nothing specifically targeted towards midlife business owners and the challenges they face.
So I kept digging. Surely there had to be more research done on midlife entrepreneurs given the numbers of us!
Only one Australian Professor – Dr Professor Alex Maritz, has written a couple of articles and completed the ONLY Australian study on 50+ entrepreneurs back in 2015.
This was a qualitative study where he interviewed 90 people to find out how they perceive being a middle-aged entrepreneur.
His work is enlightening, well considered and primarily looks at the barriers to older entrepreneurship, as well as government policy and other support considerations needed.
But it is only one research study.
This is like walking into our imagined massive library and finding that there is only one dusty Little Golden Book covering the topic, shoved at the bottom of a rack in a dusty, forgotten corner in amongst books on male pattern balding.
I don’t know about you, but having just one Australian study on midlife entrepreneurs is almost insulting. As significant contributors to the economy, middle aged entrepreneurs should NOT be this invisible!
Leaping Into Research
So, I started my own (non-academic) study to see if I can help bridge the gap and help my clients and speaking audiences more effectively in their businesses.
Over the past few weeks, I have held in-depth interviews with over 30 midlife entrepreneurs across Australia, the UK and the USA (with still more scheduled).
Our conversations have been deep, raw and very frank, and I thank every person who has shared their journey with me.
We have covered a stack of territory in our discussions, exploring everything from how they got to where they are now, to problems and issues they are facing in their business.
In many cases, these interviews dropped into mini-mentoring sessions to help people navigate thorny challenges or stages in their business.
I have been capturing their common issues and problems and then mapping them against current thinking about midlife psychology to identify overlaps and gaps.
I am trying to identify what midlife entrepreneurial issues could be impacted by the normal mental/physical/hormonal changes we all go through, and how to work with these changes to help business owners get better results for themselves and their businesses.
Common Issues for Midlife Entrepreneurs
In a nutshell:
- Many midlife entrepreneurs are accidental entrepreneurs (or necessity entrepreneurs in academic language). That is, they had never dreamed that they would be running a business back in school, but then life happened, and now here they are. Most have no formal business training and were mentally unprepared and unskilled for the reality of running a business.
- Midlifers face physical, hormonal and emotional changes as part of the aging process that gives them both untapped superpowers compared to their younger cohort and some areas of kryptonite that can be mitigated against if dealt with the right way. Knowing how to leverage these strengths and challenges is vital knowledge for all midlife entrepreneurs.
- Midlifers are almost universally exhausted and time-poor. They are the most overloaded of all the generations as they juggle hundreds of different hats with aging parents, older child-rearing, potential grandchildren, social life and work. Everything they do is done with a whopping generous dollop of exhaustion thrown in, which means time to focus or available to spend on learning new things is minimal. So, people just muddle through and do the best they can.
- Midlife entrepreneurs face different issues and challenges when running a business compared to younger entrepreneurs. These include feeling bamboozled or incompetent when it comes to tech; and struggling with marketing their business, with an undercurrent of concern for big-noting themselves (which is an embedded cultural fear for Baby Boomers in particular). Many also struggle with charging what they are worth. These differences are not addressed via government programs or through much of the mainstream support mechanisms. This makes creating sustainable business success much harder to achieve for midlife entrepreneurs than it could otherwise be.
- Much of the skills training available does not match how midlife entrepreneurs prefer to learn. Pure online training just doesn’t cut it for midlifers, which is supported by academic research around midlife education preferences. Adjusting how support and training programs are delivered would increase skill development and confidence in midlife entrepreneurs.
- Baby Boomers and Generation X midlifers are products of their life experience. Each generation views the world through a lens of what was happening at the time they grew up, which translates into their behaviour in building businesses. In other words, there are logical reasons why networking groups and Chambers of Commerce are filled with midlife entrepreneurs and not younger crowds.
- There are many key business stages that midlifers go through, each that needs a different mindset adjustment to navigate the transition points successfully. These stages are different from traditional business growth models.
- Male midlife entrepreneurs, in particular, face negative challenges that impact their mental health. This is borne out in the research of suicide rates by age and gender, as well as research coming out of Korea that shows self-employed people report more suicidal behaviours and attempts. Many of the current interventions and supports being put in place do not appear to be reaching this group of people.
- Many midlifers are serial entrepreneurs, having started a number of businesses of different types over the years, and have bounced back and forth between running a business and some form of wages employment. This mobility can create feelings of shame and feeling like being a failure rather than simply moving to another employment type. These feelings are compounded by feelings of “I should be further along in my life than this”, as well as fears for their future with a lack of superannuation. There are few supports created to help address these issues.
In other words, accidental midlife entrepreneurs are genuinely amazing. They are succeeding despite everything and not because of anything, and deserve more support and attention than they are getting.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of my findings, which is why I am currently writing a book on midlife entrepreneurs.
I can’t yet tell you how long the book will take until it is ready for release, but I will keep you posted through this blog as part of the development journey.
And if you are a fellow accidental midlife entrepreneur, I salute you! You are more awesome than you know.