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Wired this way? Why are more over 50s starting self employment later in life?

The number of over 50s working for themselves is bigger than ever before. They now make up almost half of the UKs entire self employed workforce. This fact comes from a survey by Rest Less, a website for over 50s.

I have seen quite a few survey results like this. I always find them a bit puzzling. If someone has a tendency towards working for themselves, would they wait until they were 50?

I guess I assume that people who choose to work for themselves are 'wired this way'. They are likely to have tried it earlier on in their life.

This was my experience. I started self employment with cleaning jobs while I was at college. After uni my friends started jobs in corporate law and accountancy, but I chose to set up a campsite shop.

I did then go on to work for employers for a decade or so... but in my 30s I came back to working for myself and have not looked back since. I've even run courses for other people who want to start their own businesses.

I think that some people are just 'wired this way'. They have the bug to be self employed - and it shows itself far earlier than 50. But this survey suggests I am missing part of the picture.

Curious, I asked a few fellow self-employed folk amongst my tenants at Harland Works.

Monica who runs Zag Yoga, started working for herself aged 25 when she ran a theatre company. Rob and Alastair now run architects Skeet and Coutie. Like me, they both started experimenting with self employment. Rob taught the clarinet from 16. Alastair worked in joinery/construction from his early 20s.

Stef a violin maker (Gibertoni Violins) launched himself in his business straight after training at 26. He has very limited experience of being employed! Chris (a bowmaker) has ‘never been in gainful employment’ and has always worked for himself.

These comments seemed to echo my experiences.

But Chris went on to say that in his industry it is not at all unusual to start out as a bowmaker after 50. He teaches on a course that has people of all ages - “age is no barrier. There are people fresh from university and people nearly in the grave …”. And Alistair has a friend who has been a headmaster who has now set up as an educational consultant.

Both these reasons for starting late make lots of sense to me. Is it factors like this that are causing the growth in over 50 start-ups?

To explore futher, I posted a question in a freelancers community I’m part of on facebook. I asked people what age they were when they were when they started self employment.

Most people said they started far younger than 50 - but there were quite a few who started over 50. And the question provoked lots of discussion.

Here were some of the most popular reasons:

  • Flexibility and control over hours - for example for caring responsibilities “we can duck and dive when we work for ourselves”

  • Opportunity offered by technology - “if it had been around decades ago like now, I would have been my own boss sooner!”

  • Fresh challenge - I did it “after I retired from a very rigid and disciplined role”

  • To use hard won skills and cut out the middleman by selling directly to clients. “I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or experience to do this without a good amount of ‘in-house’ experience first"

  • To escape from corporate/employed life! “When you are older you are less likely to put up with the crap of working for other people!”

  • Because you can! “After 20 - 30 years working and becoming a specialist, a lot of people find themselves able to consult, work for themselves, pick and choose what they do because they are able to”

  • Redundancy - over 50s can be the first to go, because they cost the most being at the top of their salary tree. “They have bags of experience, understand the market and a pot of redundancy cash to invest!”

These reasons make good sense to me! So maybe I’ll re-consider my view that you have to be ‘hard wired’ from birth as a self employed sort of person.

If you are interested in why people start up over 50, you might be interested in an event we’re hosting at Harland Works to discuss the topic in September. More details here.


Sophy Hallam