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Harrop: Never too late to start up

Published: Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Could an aging population be good for economic growth? I mean, isn’t it an accepted fact that our economy will suffer as more Americans pass age 65 and start sitting around all day, soaking up government benefits?

That’s the spiel, but many economists are not buying it. Older workers can fill in the labor gaps caused by falling birthrates. And employers often undervalue their expertise, wrongly assuming that younger is better and cheaper.

Meanwhile, most Americans haven’t been saving enough to support a 30-year retirement in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. They’ll have to work. But many healthy 60- and 70-year-olds actually want to do some kind of work.

The big surprise is that many are starting their own businesses. Contrary to popular myth, the typical entrepreneur is more likely to be over 45 than under 30, according to a Kauffman Foundation study.

Sure, those over 65 are using government entitlements. But if they’re also earning money, they’re also paying taxes -- and perhaps employing others. Rather than act as disincentives to work, Medicare and Social Security are giving older Americans the courage to live out their dreams of starting a business.

“Now you have a safety net,” Vivek Wadhwa, an expert on entrepreneurship, told me. “You might as well take a risk and start something.” Wadhwa is director of research at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.

Interestingly, the medical security provided by Obamacare may similarly free younger Americans to take a chance on their own businesses. “Health care has been a detractor from entrepreneurship,” Wadhwa says.

Older entrepreneurs do gravitate toward different kinds of startups than do their juniors. They are “more sensible, more traditional,” according to Wadhwa. They may buy a franchise or try retail. Younger entrepreneurs are likelier to embark on risky, world-changing ventures.

Some older professionals go out and commercialize ideas that took years of training and experience to develop.

“In health care, there are no 25-year-old entrepreneurs,” David E. Albert, an Oklahoma City cardiologist and serial inventor, told me. “You are more likely to be in your 40s or 50s.”

Albert started his latest company, AliveCor, at age 56. It sells a device that turns a smartphone into a clinical-quality heart monitor.

Suppose you’re experiencing chest pains. You can slip an AliveCor box over your iPhone, slap the phone on your chest and instantly send your EKG results to a cardiac specialist through an app. In moments, you can learn whether you need medical attention right away.

In one celebrated case, an airline passenger in distress prompted flight attendants to ask over the loudspeaker whether there was a doctor on board. There was one, who, using the box and app, determined that the man was suffering an acute heart attack. The captain made an emergency landing, perhaps saving the passenger’s life.

“Your 60s are the opportunity to explore things you’ve always wanted to do, and it may be entrepreneurship,” Albert said. If the kids are gone and the mortgage paid off, you’ve essentially come full circle from when you were young and had few responsibilities.

Now pushing 60, Albert says, “I’m pretty sure that I haven’t started my last company.”

Lifelong ambition may be a peculiarly American phenomenon. Gallup and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared the well-being of older Germans, Brits and Americans. They found the Germans healthier and that the British elders had better access to health care.

But on “sense of optimism,” Americans left the others in the dust. That’s why Americans may lead the industrialized world in breaking the mold of long, sedentary retirements. What an interesting economic experiment that would be.

• Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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