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Career opportunities dry up after age of 50? Don't bet on it

Posting in Design

This Sunday, The New York Times ran a front-page piece with an especially bleak message for anyone over the age of 50 seeking greener career pastures: forget about it, give up, it's all over. Don't even try.

I'm an avid reader and subscriber to The New York Times. The paper is not afraid to take on injustice, and sets the tone of our national conversation. But the "Old Gray Lady" (the NYT's nickname, from the days of its mostly text front page) sometimes tends to go over the top, painting bleak pictures of society, of dreams hopelessly and relentlessly crushed by circumstance and design at the whims of the powers that be.

The article paints portraits of 50 and 60-somethings just barely hanging on by their fingernails, holding out for Social Security and Medicare benefits to kick in (ages 62 and 65, respectively).

And forget about retraining to forge new career paths. Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is quoted as saying: “It just doesn’t make sense to offer retraining for people 55 and older. Discrimination by age, long-term unemployment, the fact that they’re now at the end of the hiring queue, the lack of time horizon just does not make it sensible to invest in them.”

So, do worklives peter out, or even terminate, starting at age 50, as the article suggests? It's worth noting that while today's economy is harsh, it also is opening up many new opportunities -- for all ages.

There is no such thing as lifetime employment, and most people not only change jobs multiple times over the course of their lifetimes, but also careers. The career you pursue in your 50s may not even closely resemble the career you planned for in college. And, increasingly, those second and third careers may have more entrepreneurial flavors to them.

A study released in 2009 by the U.K. National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), finds that entrepreneurs aged 50-65 years, created 27 percent of successful start up companies in the U.K. between 2001 and 2005. (The study referred to this group as "Third-Age Entrepreneurs.")

About the same time, research from the Kauffman Foundation concluded that the Baby Boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) will lead an unprecedented entrepreneurial boom. As the report found, in every single year from 1996 to 2007, Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than those aged 20-34. In addition, for the entire period, the 55-64 group averaged a rate of entrepreneurial activity roughly one-third larger than their youngest counterparts. These trends seem likely to persist: in the Kauffman Firm Survey, a longitudinal survey of nearly 5,000 companies that began in 2004, two-thirds of firm founders are between the ages of 35 and 54.

Additionally, Kauffman research has revealed that the average age of the founders of technology companies in the United States is a surprisingly high 39 — with twice as many over age 50 as under age 25

Contrary to popularly held assumptions, it turns out that over the past decade or so, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55-64 age group. "The 20-34 age bracket, meanwhile, which is usually identified with swashbuckling and risk-taking youth (think Facebook and Google), has the lowest," Kauffman found. "Perhaps most surprising, this disparity occurred in the 11 years around the dot-com boom—when the young entrepreneurial upstart became a cultural icon."

"Since the first Internet-era recession, transaction costs and barriers to entry have fallen for entrepreneurs of every age," the Kauffman reports adds. Consider how the growing abundance of cloud computing resources is also opening up new ways to launch business ventures with very little startup capital.

New funding mechanisms, particularly crowdfunding, opens up funding for new business ideas from the network, without the encumbrances of bank loans or individual investors.

Social networks open up the world across all professions, enabling professionals to gain contacts, advice and actual assistance with developing new ideas.

Organizations are showing a lack of commitment to training and education to grow the skills they need to compete in today's global economy. The New York Times article questioned whether it was even worth the investment to retrain an over-50 employee. Now, however, individuals of all ages can pursue online educational opportunities, including free instruction from the world's leading experts via massive open online courses.

The Internet does not recognize age as a barrier, and is also oblivious to distinctions in race, religion, gender and location -- it is a source of opportunity open to all.

Interestingly, the Kauffman report also notes that a "steady increase in life expectancy also means that Americans are not only living longer but also living healthier longer, suggesting that those entrepreneurial 60-year-olds could be 2020’s entrepreneurial 70-year-olds. Even if business formation rates fell off within this age group, we would still have tens of thousands of potential mentors to the next generation of entrepreneurs."

The takeaway: In this age of possibilities, age is totally meaningless.

(Photo Credit: US Census Bureau, Department of Commerce.)

— By on February 3, 2013, 8:00 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure