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Why Startups Need More People Over 50

Older workers offer a wealth of experience and other skills that are still in high demand.

Why Startups Need More People Over 50
[Photo: Portra Images/Getty Images]

When Google announced a corporate restructuring in mid-August, eyes turned towards business mogul Warren Buffett. At 85 years old, Buffett is still widely considered one of the wealthiest and most influential business leaders in the world. During his long tenure at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, he’s seen more than his share of business fads go boom and bust.

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Buffett isn’t the only top business mogul whom many would consider to be at or past retirement age. With Rupert Murdoch (84) and Richard Branson (65) still regularly making headlines, it’s easy to see why media outlets are declaring that “80 is the new 50.”

Yet we don’t pay as much attention to older adults whose net worth isn’t measured in billions. Despite regulations from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that forbid discrimination against workers over the age of 40, older job seekers often feel pressured to shorten their resumes. By downplaying their years of experience, many strive to avoid seeming too old to merit an interview. But it’s the startup world in particular–which is largely driving these pressures–that’s missing out.

A Wealth Of Experience

Older workers find themselves in a double-bind all throughout the business world. Experience, paradoxically, is as highly valued as the age that comes with it is shunned. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice in order to master a skill. But less widely accepted is the understanding that it often takes “10 years of silence” before someone hits their career peak and their performance is recognized. Think of it as a talent-incubation period, but even a child prodigy like Mozart had to put in a decade of flying under the radar before he finally produced a popular hit.

Needless to say, this holds practical repercussions for our careers. Just look at the way employers compensate workers: You’re worth more at the end of your career than you are at the beginning. Yet many employers act as if older workers’ years of experience start to lose value once they turn 65, the magic number upon which U.S. retirees can begin to collect full Social Security benefits. “But there is nothing magical about retirement itself,” writes Robert Laura, a self-identified retirement activist. Laura points out that for many, retirement can feel like an abrupt end to an identity crafted over a lifetime of working.

People in their 80s and 90s are the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. And research has shown that they’re happier when they have some kind of purpose, like a job or volunteer work, to pursue. Not only are retirees motivated to put their skills to good use, our economy loses money each year by not tapping into older workers’ wealth of knowledge and experience.

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Better Business Guidance

This can be especially true at startups, which are known for hiring young people. On average, 27% of employees in firms that are under five years old are between the ages of 25 and 34. But they’re also known for failing. As many as 90% of startups fold–the result of many factors, not the least of which is often their founders’ inexperience. One analysis of 101 failed startups revealed that shortcomings like a lack of knowledge of the market or an inappropriate business model were primarily at fault.

Older adults with deep business experience can help make sometimes pivotal business decisions for new and growing companies. Entrepreneur contributor Adam Toren recalls asking the advice of his grandfather, a successful antiques expert, on a children’s toy airplane business that he ran with his brother.

“Looking back, I realize he really engineered our first foray into business to build our confidence and help us understand what it’s like to work for ourselves,” Toren wrote. “Even now, nearly 30 years later, Matthew and I find ourselves remembering his advice when we’re planning or making decisions.”

Old-Fashioned Values Still Have Value

Even if they aren’t former entrepreneurs, many retirees have jam-packed resumes. And though they might not excel at social media or computer programming, many of their other skills remain in high demand. According to Business Insider, older employees tend to be more loyal, possess strong leadership qualities, and bring more established professional networks to the table. Most importantly, older workers have accumulated years of experience that have allowed them to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Older workers also bring with them “old-fashioned” values that can still bolster company culture, especially in volatile startup environments. Qualities traditionally associated with the “Greatest Generation,” which an Economist report identified as “patience, distinctiveness, thrift, and trust,” are cultivated over a lifetime. In the modern workplace, they can help growing companies withstand market fluctuations and retain valuable employees.

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When businesses were hit by 2008’s financial crisis, family-owned companies were well-positioned to endure the recession that followed, and in many cases managed to avoid layoffs that other companies were forced to make. Some of that fortitude likely came from the older generations involved in those businesses who had the experience to see beyond the immediate circumstances. Family companies also tend to provide a strong internal culture and set of values that can help employees feel supported during tough times.

A Passion For Work

With their limited budgets, startups tend to seek people who work for fulfillment, not money. In practice, that’s likely to be someone very young–but it might just as well describe a retiree who’s simply looking for something interesting to do.

The contentment we draw from ordinary experiences, particularly when they’re shared with others, actually increases as we age, making a mentor relationship ideal for helping older Americans live satisfying lives. And that pays off for companies, too. Some organizations–including Michelin, General Mills, and Boeing–tap retirees with a lot of experience to mentor young people.

While those are worthy projects, they’re a far cry from real, business-driven work. What if retirees had more direct roles in guiding companies’ strategic initiatives? Retirees could report to a company’s office part time, sign up to field regular phone calls from bootstrapping entrepreneurs in need of low-cost consulting, or even team up with new hires for monthly lunches to help younger employees find perspective on their careers. The possibilities for engaging the knowledgeable, ever-growing cohort of retirees are endless.

But as long as companies refuse to tap that resource, they–and our economy, with its thousands of budding and struggling businesses–lose out. Unfortunately, so do seniors themselves.

Sue Chen is the founder and CEO of NOVA Medical Products, which provides stylish walkers, canes, and other independent living products for people with physical challenges. She was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in 2011.

This article was prepared with contributions from Michelle Delgado of Hippo Reads.

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