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Are Aging Stereotypes Stopping You from Starting a Business?

Are Aging Stereotypes Stopping You from Starting a Business?
Margaret Manning

Does the way we think about words like “retirement” and “bingo” change our behavior? Could aging stereotypes even have an impact on how many of us decide to start a business after 50? According to a 1996 study by John Bargh, and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there is reason to believe that they do. As a result, it is more important than ever for us to redefine retirement and provide positive examples for each other of what we can accomplish in our 50s, 60s and beyond.

I Could Probably Make You Read this Article More Slowly

If I asked you make up sentences from a list of words that included “retirement,” “bingo,” “old,” and “cruise,” without telling you why, you would almost certainly read this article more slowly. At least, that’s the conclusion that I draw after reading about Bargh’s classic experiment. In the original study, “participants for whom an elderly stereotype was primed walked more slowly down the hallway when leaving the experiment than did control participants, consistent with the content of that stereotype.”

In other words, our associations matter. When TV shows and movies show us that retirement should be a time of quiet contemplation, we unconsciously believe them. When society tells us that people over a certain age are slower and less competent, we listen. Is it any surprise that people over 50 wonder if they are “too old” to start a business, even when they know logically that they are at the top of their game?

We Need Success Stories, Not Statistics

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, in 2011, 20.3% of entrepreneurs were over 50. That’s several times more than the number of entrepreneurs between the ages of 25 and 34. So, why do so many of us think that starting a business after 50 is the exception and not the rule? The statistics don’t lie. They are just speaking a language that we can’t understand.

We are hardwired to understand stories, not statistics. When someone tells us that 20.3% of entrepreneurs in 2011 were over 50, our brains give a collective yawn. When we see 20-something after 20-something being paraded through the media, after having invented a new way to say “YO” to each other, our brains pay attention. We consume the stories of younger entrepreneurs with a passionate hunger, until our association between “youth” and “entrepreneurship” are so obvious that we no longer think about them.

The solution, or at least part of the solution, is for us to start telling our own stories. We need to take control of the aging narrative by providing positive examples for other people in our generation to follow and aspire to. We need to confidentially celebrate entrepreneurship after 50. We need to redefine retirement.

We Can’t Change the World, but, We Can Change Our World

Trying to change the way that the world thinks about aging is likely to be about as effective as trying to mop up the ocean with a hand towel. That’s ok. We don’t need to change the world. We just need to change our world. By filling our world with positive examples of successful entrepreneurs over 50, we will start to believe that this is “normal.”

Communities like this one are a great place to get started. If you have a success story to share, we’d love to hear about it. In the next few weeks, we will also be launching a forum. This will be a place for us to share ideas, give feedback and find solutions to common problems facing older entrepreneurs. I hope that you will join us.

Have you started a business after 50? Did you break away from your corporate career to become a freelance consultant? Please join the discussion and “like” and share this article to keep the conversation going.

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