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Don't ease into retirement: Women age 65 and over are finding new success in business

Key Points
  • Three percent of women ages 65 and up are involved in early stage entrepreneurship, up from 2.3% in 2016, and outpacing business formation among the general population.
  • Only 15.5% of women in the 65-and-over age group are still in the workforce.
  • With roughly 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, an encore career as a business owner is a way for women to maintain their energy, interest and creativity rather than ease into retirement.
Shirley Yearwood, 65, retired from a career at the IRS in 2016. "I see so many people in my age group not living life to the fullest. I did not want that to be me," she says. Yearwood has a coaching business for people in her age group on health, wellness and travel.
Dale Burgess | Dalbu Photography

After running her own public relations firm for years, Judy Katz was looking for a change when she turned 65. She started a brand-new business as a ghostwriter of books, and now, at age 78, is still going strong, with no plans to retire. "If I can stay healthy and keep my memory sharp, then I don't see any reason," says the New York City resident.

Katz is part of a small but growing group of women who have started businesses at age 65 and up at a time when many of their peers are easing into retirement.

It's not a massive trend. The most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a sweeping study of entrepreneurs produced by Babson College, found in its recent 2017/18 United States Report that 3% of women ages 65 and up are involved in early stage entrepreneurship — starting a business or running one that is less than 42 months old. That is up from 2.3% in 2016 and 2.7% in 2017. And it is outpacing the general population: Total entrepreneurial activity was 2.1% in 2017.

While the number of 65-and-over female new business owners is still small, their participation in entrepreneurship is noteworthy because most working women are retired by then. Only 15.5% of women this age are still in the workforce, says Donna Kelley, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Don't let age limit you

It could be a harbinger of things to come. About 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day, many still full of energy and interested in staying active in their careers. "If you retire at 65 and are going to live til 90, especially women, they want to go out and be productive and do things and not be bored," Kelley said.

Shirley Yearwood, 65, is a case in point. She retired from a career at the IRS in 2016 and spent two years as the primary caregiver for her 97-year-old mother. With her mother now living in a nursing home, Yearwood yearned to do something more.

"I see so many people in my age group not living life to the fullest," says Yearwood. "I did not want that to be me."

If you retire at 65 and are going to live til 90, especially women, they want to go out and be productive and do things and not be bored.
Donna Kelley
professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College

Yearwood, based in Snellville, Georgia, tapped into her personal experience as a breast cancer survivor and recently started a business as a coach to people in her age group on health, wellness and travel. During her recovery from cancer, she pushed herself to embrace new activities, such as weight training, and realized how important it was for people in her age to overcome the intimidation factor and try new things.

"My tagline is, 'Don't let age limit you,'" Yearwood said.

Yearwood is currently taking an online class in Facebook marketing to learn the ropes of promoting her services. "It is a little scary," she said. "I'm not astute on social media, but I'm getting there."

Laid off from her job as an escrow assistant at a title insurance company in 2013, Linda Clay, then 63, couldn't find another job. So she became a business owner.
Megan Peirona | Megan Peirona Photography

Some women who start businesses in their mid-sixties and beyond are looking to get into a new line of work that doesn't come with the pressure of an earlier career, according to Babson's Kelley. "They get to the point in their lives where they ask, 'Why should I pile all of this stress onto myself?'"

One thing that's made it easier for them to take the plunge is the growth of gig economy platforms, such as the crafts marketplace Etsy, where they can connect with clients, Kelley has found. "It reduces the entry requirements and makes it easy for people," she said.

For some women, there's another reason to start businesses in their sixties: necessity. "Not everyone has a healthy retirement fund," Kelley said.

Age discrimination makes it hard for many older Americans, among them women, to keep working in traditional jobs, even when they need the income.

"Many people want or need to be making money into their sixties, but it's not easy to find work," Kelley said.

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Laid off from her job as an escrow assistant at a title insurance company in 2013, Linda Clay, then 63, couldn't find another job. "No one wanted to hire baby boomers," says Clay.

She set herself up as a self-employed virtual assistant, doing freelance administrative work for remote clients, but realized that was not her true calling.

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Gradually, she eased her way into starting another business from her home in Seattle. She provides business and lifestyle coaching to women leaving the corporate world, tapping into her previous work experience managing stores for retailers such as Barnes & Noble.

"In my work, I help them gain confidence to really go after what they want to do and not what society has told them to do," Clay, now 68, said. "I love putting the pieces of the puzzle back together in their lives and helping them find the business or job they want."

Clay is now building a paid Facebook community for women ages 40 and up and is a speaker for the Women of Impact conference. "I think the possibilities are endless," she says.

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at @ Work: Human Capital + Finance Summit in Chicago on July 16.

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Key Points
  • Employees age 65 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, according to AARP.
  • But legal safeguards that shield workers from age discrimination have been weakened in recent years.
  • The newly reintroduced, bipartisan Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act would reverse a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that made age discrimination cases harder to prove.