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When looking for paid employment, many older Australians come up against ageism even though they have extensive experience, skills and work history. Losing this group from the workforce is a big loss.
We know that many older people want to work for longer. Maybe not fulltime, but they enjoy being in the workforce and being part of a team. They like the kind of social engagement having a job brings. There is also a group of seniors who need to work for financial reasons. Perhaps they don’t yet have sufficient funds to retire and want to bring in some extra cash.
Recent research by Colonial First State found many older Australians would delay retirement up to ten years if they were able to switch careers and achieve a better work-life balance. What’s more, more than one in three people aged 45–65 are considering a career change in the next few years.
The result is that many over-50s are starting up their own businesses. Some are doing the same kinds of work they’ve done throughout their careers. Others are heading in an entirely different direction and doing something they’ve always wanted to try but have never been able to for one reason or another.
Janne’s story: The search for meaning
Janne Sverdloff is a full-time marriage and funeral celebrant and an end-of-life doula running her own business in bereavement support. But for many years, she was a head teacher at a private school in Sydney’s inner west.
“Even though I was doing something I knew I was good at, I felt there was something missing,” says Sverdloff, 61. “I would start every day with a long list of tasks that I needed to complete but many of the things on my lists wouldn’t get done. I needed to find a better work-life balance, and I had this feeling that I had more to offer; that I wasn’t reaching the people who needed me most.”
When Sverdloff was in her early 50s, her dad’s health began to deteriorate. As he became more unwell, she took her first step towards changing her work life for good. “I stepped down as head teacher and took a less responsible position so that I could spend more time with my father,” she says.
Later, she took paid leave so she could sit vigil with her father and was with him when he took his last breath. “My mum had died in 2002 and I’d also had a stillborn baby. I had been so disenchanted with what I had experienced with funeral directors in the past, especially with celebrants, that when it came time to plan Dad’s funeral, I decided to do it myself.”
Sverdloff planned and officiated her father’s funeral so well that the funeral director offered her a job. “I didn’t accept, but it got the cogs turning. While still working as a teacher, I completed a celebrancy certificate course, then took a year’s leave to establish the first version of my new business.”
Since then, she has undergone more training, including a diploma in counselling. “I have more autonomy and a stronger sense of purpose now. I feel more fulfilled, less frustrated. Even though I was a passionate teacher, this new role is far more meaningful to me.”
Switching careers beyond 50
President of the Council on the Ageing NSW (COTA) Joan Hughes says there are several drivers causing seniors to take a leap of faith and start up their own business later in life. “Many want to take on a new challenge. They want to expand on existing skills and learn new ones.
“Some are unable to find work, or they’ve stopped working full time but want to keep a hand in. Many have held a passion throughout their working lives and are now ready to make it happen. They want to earn extra money but, most importantly, they want to stay engaged in their communities,” says Hughes.
Dubbed ‘seniorpreneurs’, these experienced individuals often talk about the flexibility that starting their own business gives them. They’re able to do other things in their lives, whether that’s travel, spending more time with family and friends, or pursuing other challenges and interests. They see themselves less as retirees, but as people still evolving and becoming who they truly want to be.
Jackie’s story: From public servant to publican
The Elrington Hotel has been trading for well over 100 years. Originally built in 1856 in the village of Majors Creek on the NSW Southern Tablelands, the old weatherboard pub was a much-loved watering hole for miners and their families during the gold rush and through to the turn of the century.
“To me, the hotel has a soul… it feels alive,” says Jackie Clark who purchased the pub in 2021. For 54-year-old Clark, The Elrington is not just an old country pub, it’s a new beginning for herself and her family.
Far from being an experienced publican, Clark was a public servant. “In my early 20s I was completing a social work degree when I was offered a student placement with the NSW Government,” she says. “I ended up loving the job so much that I stayed.”
In the early days Jackie was a child protection case worker. Then, as time progressed, her role included managing staff and running community service centres. “My daily commute was more than an hour each way. After 20-odd years I was getting tired and wanted a change. My husband Rowan was also unhappy in his job. We really did feel we were stuck in a grind.”
On Father’s Day 2020, Clark booked a table at The Elrington for a big family lunch. “We’d all been to the pub many times before, but this time we saw that it was up for sale, and suddenly we couldn’t talk about anything else. My parents had always run restaurants and guest houses. I had grown up in hospitality, so it didn’t seem impossible.”
The couple made an offer, and eventually became the pub’s proud new owners.
“It hasn’t all been smooth sailing,” Clark is quick to point out. “COVID-19 worked against us in the beginning, but the local community is so supportive, and the pub has huge potential. We are currently doing renovations on the main building and extending the accommodation. We’ve been careful to keep our personal finances separate, so the pub has to pay for itself, and it does.”
Running a new business is not without its challenges, but the Clarks are facing them together. “We’ve always wanted to work together, so it’s great. Our 17-year-old son Josh now works in the kitchen as well. We have a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. There’s live music every Sunday and the place is packed with people dancing and singing. We get such a buzz out of it.”
What the numbers say
- People aged 50+ are the fastest growing sector of entrepreneurs in Australia
- 34% of business start-ups are by people aged 50+
- Senior entrepreneurship contributes $11.9 billion to the Australian economy annually
- Senior entrepreneurship is a driver of social innovation
- Average age of successful high-growth global start-ups is 45
- Seniors are more capable of starting a business due mainly to more experience and financial back-up.
Source: COTA NSW