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Age-Diversity at Work: Can Solos and Small Businesses Share the Benefits?




I've written before about how businesses and teams benefit from age diversity and urged organizations to fill their "experience gaps" by adopting "eldership" programs. Ever since, I've been meaning to circle back to the question in the title.

Spoiler alert: the short answer is yes!

Who ya callin' small?

A couple of definitions before we dive in. For these purposes, a small business means too small to take advantage of the kind of hiring and training programs I talked about in the Elderships post. That means very small, probably what most would call a micro-business.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether yours fits the small business category. But I'll note that when Yvonne and I founded BlogPaws with our co-founder Caroline Golon, she was at least a full generation younger. In our early years, we grew to a team of 7, and at times had three generations working together.

Bottom line: don't use the size of your business as an excuse for missing out on the benefits of age diversity!

To fully rip away that cover, I'm going to focus on ways solopreneurs can tap into the benefits age-diversity at work.

Who ya callin' old?

In another post written a few months after Elderships, I disputed Buddha's assertion that you should "find your work" and devote the rest of your life to it. My primary objection flowed from the much longer human lifespan in modern times. Despite the recent step backwards due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the average life expectancy in developed countries is near 80 years.

That means HALF of us will live longer than that, much longer for many. As I wrote in the Read 'Em & Reap chapter on how reading helps you live longer, 

"Consider these U.S. age statistics:

  • the 65+ age groups overall are fastest growing
  • 85+ group expected to double by 2035 (to 11.8 million)
  • 100+ group grew 43.6% (to 72,197) from 2000 to 2014)"

A large portion of these elders remain healthy, able bodied, and eager to contribute meaningful work. And in case you're assuming that it's always going to be a young, energetic, tech-savvy business owner seeking to fill her experience gap with an older person, stop. It might well be just the opposite.

Recent studies have shown that the most successful startups have founders in midde age and beyond. Indeed, a 2018 study of more than a million startups reported that, "the highest-growth new firms not only appear to come from those in middle-age, but also tend to come at even older ages" compared to startups overall. These charts from the study show that even founders starting well into their 60s did better – both for themselves (exit results) and for others (job creation) – than founders in their 20s and early 30s.


It should come as no shock that the main reason given was the greater business and life experience accumulated by older founders.

Two contrasting titles of 2016 research reports from the SBA's Office of Advocacy emphasize that it's not just in the extremely successful, large company startup realm that older entrepreneurs flourish. Getting at our focus here on solopreneurs, The Missing Millennial Entrepreneurs examined census data for those classified as "self-employed" from 1988 to 2014.

The rate of self-employment had fallen among all age groups except those aged 55+ (the charts show data for the self-employed into their early 70s). By 2014, the rate among Baby Boomers (8.3%) was more than four times that of Millennials (2%).

At the end of that report, the author teased his next one about the rise of "encore entrepreneurs" and delivered a few months later in The Ascent of the Senior Entrepreneur. This time he divided the data into just two age groups, over 62 and under, but the finding remained the same: the percentage of self-employed fell for those under 62, but rose significantly for those 62 and over. 

Once again, this report suggests that a range of accumulated life and work experience gives senior entrepreneurs an advantage. It cites Colonel Sanders, reminding that he "only began franchising his Kentucky Fried Chicken after decades as a streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, lawyer, tire salesman, and gas station manager."

As we'll see, however, senior entrepreneurs who are both older and wiser can benefit as well from adding younger perspectives to their repertoire.

Benefits Both Ways

In the Elderships post, we looked at the benefits of age diversity running to the organization: increased productivity, innovation, workforce stability, and the bottom line. And the evidence continues to pile up, see e.g. The Value of Age Diversity in the Workplace and Leveraging the Value of an Age-Diverse Workforce.

Of course, solopreneurs want the same things for their businesses. So here I want to add emphasis to the value that runs within the age-diverse team, between the individuals, to their mutual benefit. 

In his book, Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives, Carl Honoré put it this way,

"In any business, the experience, patience, and big-picture thinking of older [teammates] can dovetail with the restless energy of younger ones. In other words, the longevity revolution can deliver . . . a blend of those who move fast and break things and those who move more slowly and question how, or even whether, things need to be broken in the first place."

He gives a host of examples, but here are the ones that hone in on the mutual benefits to the age-diverse individuals:

"The BBC recently launched a scheme for twenty-something staffers to help senior managers understand how younger audiences think and feel. But the truth is that the most fertile mentorships are always two-way streets. Skanska refers to its mentors and mentees as 'buddies' to encourage learning in both directions, and both the United States Military Academy and the U.S. Marines mix up ages during training so that the young and old can learn from each other."

Whether you call them reverse mentors, or learning buddies, or prefer Chip Conley's term, "mentern" – combining mentor with intern, from his book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, the value of learning work-related skills from people with different generational experiences is thoroughly established.

But if you're an army of one, how can you tap into these age diversity benefits?

4 Cs for Bringing Age Diversity to Your Solo Business

Coaching The simplest way is to imitate what the larger organizations are (re)discovering: make it someone's job to share learning across generations with you.

One of my favorite books on self-improvement is The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, condensing his studies of "talent hotbeds" into 52 tips for improving your skills.

His Tip #12 on picking a high-quality coach wraps up with "Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person," explaining:

"Teaching is like any other talent: It takes time to grow. This is why so many [talent] hotbeds are led by people in their sixties and seventies. Great teachers are first and foremost learners, who improve their skills with each passing year."

Note the connection between teacher and learner within the ideal coach.

In Tip #42, he pushes the idea further with advice on how to be a better coach. And Tip #47 drives it home with, "To Learn It More Deeply, Teach It," using the example of Montessori schools where mixed age groups of students engage in "collaborative, explorative" learning. He notes the mutual benefits:

"This works because when you communicate a skill to someone, you come to understand it more deeply yourself. Mixed-age groups also provide younger children vivid models to stare at [referring to his Tip #1: Stare at who you want to become], and nourish empathy in older children."

Now, if you're the older person in the picture, feel free to go back to Tip #12, recognize that "other things are not equal" in your case, and find yourself a younger coach to work with. That's what Yvonne and I did when we were designing our current business endeavors a few years ago, living in Colorado. We worked with a group of coaches on different aspects, including Katie Myers, author of Fortune is in the Failure: What you say in business, matters.

If you've read my post on how my branding statement became a limerick and then the Learning Partners Doggerel video, you have some idea of Katie's impact on my work.

Another was Kimberly Alexander, author of The Results Map: Business and life strategies to get what you want. We'll get into one of her core teachings in the next C.

Collaborating – This one can be achieved through two more Cs, crew and co-founders.

In The Results Map and her coaching program, Kimberly (a solopreneur herself) taught us to find and nurture a crew. She starts with the proposition that nobody ever has, or ever will, build a business alone. 

"It would be almost impossible to build most anything on your own, and why would you attempt to do so? It would be more difficult and far less enjoyable."

Then, using herself as an example, she explains:

"I may never have one employee in my company, but what I do have is a crew of consultants, coaches, and service-based experts that keep my business growing. I also have peers, advocates, mentors, networking partners, and clients."

Crucial to our theme of mutual benefits, she goes on:

"My crew has respect and trust in me as I do for them. I hold all of the same roles as I just listed for other people as well. Collaborative to the core, my business has succeeded because of the people I strategically assembled around me."

This played out while we were being coached on these techniques. Yvonne and I collaborated with Katie, and two other younger women to host a successful, day-long Intentional Creativity workshop in the Denver area. Sarah Leversee is Artistic Director of the Art as Action performing arts company and Jacki Cox is founder of Swirls Creative Coaching.

I put crew first, because I think you should build a crew even if you do have a small team of co-founders or employees. But I do urge most solopreneurs I work with to give careful consideration to finding one or more co-founders or co-owners. 

Remember: Jobs had Woz, Gates had Paul Allen, Google had two, YouTube had three, Twitter had four, and Facebook had five co-founders. Let's not speculate on whether some of the famous fumbles at those companies might have been avoided, if those teams had been age-diverse.

Back to our micro examples, Yvonne and I had Caroline Golon, then daughter Chloe, when we founded and grew BlogPaws. Later, I joined a networking group in Denver that was part of the 4GenNow organization, seeking to promote multi-generational entrepreneurial teams. Our informal slogan ran, "Find a co-founder who's half your age, or twice your age. Or both!"

Co-Creating – In the middle quote from Kimberly above, she included clients among her crew. I agree, but I'm breaking them out as a separate channel for tapping into age diversity in your work.

Much of what we've covered about coaching and collaborating applies here, too. But if you focus on your clients or customers, you'll discover opportunities to co-create, whether that means shaping and refining your products and services, or creating whole new lines.

And if you include age diverse clients or customers (whether you have them yet or not), this channel can deliver the age diversity benefits in spades!

To learn more about the co-creation concept, I recommend Co-Create: How Your Business will Profit from Innovative and Strategic Collaboration, by David Nour.

Community – This C covers a lot of ground, much more than can fit in one blog post. I'm just going to skim it here and perhap revisit in a post of its own.

What I'm getting at here is pretty much everyone outside your business, your suppliers, and your clients/customers. Family provides a chance for you to interact and learn from the generations around your table at family gatherings. Make time for lots of these interactions, taking the grandkids to the park, engaging in hobbies with parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents.

Your neighborhood, too. From cleanup or improvement projects, to block parties, to just hanging out on porches or in backyards.

As you move outward, you'll find lots of opportunities to get involved in organizations and causes that bring contact across the generations. Get creative, and strategic, just as Kimberly advised about your crew.

I'll leave you by repeating my recommendation Carl Honoré's book, Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives. It's filled with inspring, real life examples of people reaping the benefits of intergenerational living and working together all around the world. 

What will you do to get yours?