4 reasons it’s never too late to succeed in business

01 October 2015 -

“ElderlyWorker"

From Hollywood biopics of university dropouts-turned-tech billionaires to the much-coveted “Best 30 Under 30” list released by Forbes each year, observers could be forgiven for believing age is a key requisite for prospering in business. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth

Jermaine Haughton

It’s 2013 in the offices of global design and innovation consultancy IDEO, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. A group of designers and engineers are gathering as they look to learn from the latest whizz-kid to join the company.

The difference in this common scene is that this new employee was 89-year-old Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind, who had just successfully applied for a job with the company and had been invited to ‘come in and meet a few people’.

But while Knickerbocker-Beskind’s story may be a more extreme example, tales of people finding business success later in life are becoming much more commonplace.

Age is just a number

Shifting demographics, increased life expectancy and widely accessible adult learning resources are fuelling the notion that age is nothing but a number. According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK has seen a significant rise in the number of people aged 65 and over in employment. The figures increased by 25,000 in January to March 2014 compared to the previous quarter, while it also represents an increase of 107,000 in the 12 months preceding March.

As the nation grows older, employers are being forced to rethink how to co-ordinate both their workforce and their services to fit new challenges. Traditionally, there has been a perception that employers prefer younger workers, as opposed to older people because they are cheaper and bring new skills to organisations. However, this appears no longer to be the case, especially as the abolition of the default retirement age is fundamentally altering the intergenerational dynamics of UK workplaces.


Find out why employers need older workers to fill the skills gap

With companies unable to push staff out of work when they reach 65 years old, and increased accessibility to technology and telecommunications making flexible working a reality, older employees are an unavoidably important part of the economy – arguably more than ever before.

Describing mature workers as “the most educated, technically experienced of any labour group ever,” Talia Wesley, certified career advisor and program director at Operation Makeover, said: “They characterise a massive panel of academic and recognised knowledge gained over a half century of technological advancement.”

Large UK employers such as National Express, B&Q and JD Wetherspoon have schemes dedicated to hiring people looking for a career change or who have experienced difficulty in finding employment due to their age or extended career breaks, such as women returning to work after raising children and the long-term unemployed.

Late bloomers

Back in Silicon Valley, Knickerbocker-Beskind is still working as a designer at IDEO at the age of 91 and has become a symbol of the mature worker renaissance.

Knickerbocker-Beskind graduated in Applied Arts and Design from the Home Economics School of Syracuse University in 1945, and has become an adviser for equipment and designing products and services for the elderly and the low-vision community following a career as an occupational therapist.

She explained: “I love working in this atmosphere. I may be six or seven decades older than some of the people I'm working with - and many of them have PhDs or masters degrees, which I don't - but I'm accepted as an equal. My voice is respected for what I bring to the table, for my experience, for my insights, and for my inventive, problem-solving nature.”

Equally, there are notable examples of post-40 year olds excelling in entrepreneurship. Arianna Huffington started The Huffington Post at the age of 54, Alexandra Wang began her fashion designing career in her 40s and husband-and-wife team Tim and Nina Zagat didn’t find success with their now iconic restaurant guides until their 50s. In fact, a Duke University study, of more than 500 technology businesses, found that there was double the number of successful entrepreneurs over 50 as there were under-25s.

Former voluntary sector worker Zandra Johnson, 67, launched bespoke children’s furniture company Fairytale Furniture in 2008. Selling most of her products online, she raised £12,000 in savings to fund the business and spent many hours attending business courses, seminars, reading books and researching manufacturers.

“I love seeing my ideas become reality,” she said. “Sometimes I feel I’m riding a tiger because there is a lot of anxiety involved and there are never enough hours in the day.”

Here are four reasons older people have so much to offer the business world:

Life experience

In some industries, mature workers often provide a greater reflection of the customer base. Particularly in some businesses, such as banking and housing, some consumers are more comfortable relating their needs to workers they perceive to have significant life experience of their own.

Mentoring younger workers

Older leaders have a lot to offer in helping share their wisdom, knowledge and expertise with younger recruits. Many mature workers begun their careers before email, smartphones and the internet, and therefore can provide a different, more patient, face-to-face approach to communications and negotiation skills.

Strong networks

Compared to peers in their 20s and 30s, most successful business people of a more senior age have simply been in the workforce longer, with more time to build relationships with important contacts within their industry. Almost half of employers (46%) said that their older employees have strong professional networks, compared to 30% who said the same about their younger workers, according to a study conducted by The Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

Boosting the economy

The benefits of having more mature people in the workplace extend into the national economy. If everyone worked one year longer, GDP could increase by a percentage point, equivalent to £16 billion, according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research in 2013.

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