Denise Kingsmill: The Age of Enterprise

Rather than baby-boomers being a burden on society, their entrepreneurial flair and adaptability are vital to the economy.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2011

It is my birthday this month and I admit that I am a baby-boomer. Since the cohort so described covers those born in the post-war years of 1946 to 1960, this is not giving away anything too precise about my age. However, as the first of the baby-boomers reaches 65 this year, my admission feels almost like a confession. In recent weeks there has been much criticism of my age group as the 'selfish generation'. We British boomers are supposed to have reaped the benefit of free education, house price inflation, and index-linked pensions, while at the same time saddling our children with the cost of supporting us in our old age. According to some commentators, we are responsible for most of society's ills, from global warming to the financial meltdown, from increased rates of divorce and family breakdown to obesity and drug addiction. Boomers are seen as the 'me' generation, expecting the world to change to meet their needs and with a highly developed sense of being special.

This is a grossly distorted view of what has been the most economically successful generation ever, which has contributed to huge productivity growth, technological innovation and medical advances throughout the world. The dramatic social changes and causes, such as civil rights, feminism and gay rights to which this generation has also applied its energies, have transformed our society.

In addition, boomers are taller, healthier, and have higher IQs than any previous generation. Over the course of this generation, global income has increased by a third, life expectancy is up by a third and infant mortality is down by two-thirds. The contribution of the baby-boomers to raised output and growth and quality of life has been exceptional.

The sheer size of the boomer cohort as a proportion of the total population, and its unprecedented levels of participation in the workforce, is unlikely to be repeated by future generations. It is unsurprising then that economists and politicians alike view the approaching retirement of many of this group and the deep economic shifts that this will entail with some trepidation. As the boomers age and retire, reducing their levels of working and spending, GDP growth will be significantly affected. This, coupled with longer life expectancy and the consequent increased demands on the health service and pension providers, will place an overwhelming burden on future generations.

For it is true that while boomers may have worked and consumed hard, the one thing they have not done is save for their old age. Rapidly rising stock markets and house prices made them feel rich with no need to save. Mortgages, credit cards, car loans and overdrafts were cheap and easy to obtain, making them a highly indebted generation - and as a result the majority are financially unprepared for retirement.

There is only one solution. Far from enjoying the sun-filled ease of a Saga cruise or the simple pleasures of golf and gardening, the golden oldies are just going to have to work longer, even if that means working for themselves. Not just to provide for their own needs but because society cannot afford the cost of the withdrawal of their economic activity.

They might be pretty good at it, too, according to recent research by Judah Ronch, dean of the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Robert Singh, an associate professor at the Earl G Graves School of Business and Management at Morgan State University. The academics suggest that the mature mind has abilities that are critical for successful entrepreneurs. They write that co-ordination between the two sides of the brain - the left, where analytical thinking resides, and the right, which controls creativity - improves with age.

They have also found that, with age, the brain regulates emotional states better, so that people become less impulsive and less driven by emotion. Thus, they believe older entrepreneurs are less likely to get bogged down in detail and may be better equipped to come up with holistic, creative solutions. 'With better emotional control, they are better able to stay focused,' they say. This refutation of the stereotypes of the ageing worker as forgetful, change-resistant and inflexible may have come just in time. Not only does it help overcome workplace prejudice, it may provide a positive encouragement to boomers to consider new ways of working by tapping into their entrepreneurial skills.

It is no surprise to learn that Sir Terry Leahy, after a long and successful career at Tesco, now wants to take on roles in smaller, entrepreneurial companies. There is space in a lifetime for more than one career, and with planning, energy and luck it is possible to extend a working life to maintain income, interest and social and economic contribution through entrepreneurship.

The fact is that for many this is becoming a necessity as well as a life choice. Starting and running a business is a daunting prospect at any age but perhaps boomers are better suited to it than most. They have proved to be an exceptionally adaptable generation, as they have lived and worked through a period of enormous social, economic and cultural change, which they have, in many cases, initiated and led. It is unlikely that this resourcefulness will disappear as they age.

Baby-boomers make up over 60% of the annual MT ranking of Britain's Top 100 entrepreneurs. Far from being a burden on their offspring, the boomer generation may well continue to be the UK's key wealth creators.

- Baroness Kingsmill is currently a non-executive director of British, European and US boards

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