Aging and Entrepreneurship
By Cyril Morong
ENTREPRENEURSHIP, the initiation and assumption of the financial risks of a business and its management. The decision to start a business is often complex. Many factors, including the need for achievement, the need for control over one's destiny, the willingness to take risks, the loss of one's job, and other forms of displacement may prompt a person to start his or her own business. While some writers see no link between age and the decision to start a new business, others have found close links. When age is a significant factor, it is often for psychological reasons.
Entrepreneurial opportunities are most likely to be pursued by people with a college education who are in their late thirties and have established careers. Age is relevant to entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship is important for the aged. Of those who are employed at age 65 or older, 27% are self-employed (Maddox 1985). It is useful to examine the relationship between entrepreneurship and aging through the internal or psychological aspects of a person's decision to become an entrepreneur.
The Entrepreneur and Hero Compared
Joseph Campbell believed that the entrepreneur was the real hero in our society. Although he never systematically compared the entrepreneur and the hero, it is interesting to do so. Heroes and entrepreneurs are called to take part in an adventure that is a simultaneous journey of self-discovery, spiritual growth, and the personal creativity they make possible. An entrepreneur's journey closely resembles the journey of the hero in mythology as outlined in Campbell's book, The Hero 'With a Thousand Faces (1968). There is a strong similarity between the journey that
entrepreneurs take and the adventure of heroes. Entrepreneurs and heroes also have similar personality traits. Myths describe the universal human desires and conflicts we see played out in the lives of entrepreneurs. Ian MacMillan and Rita Gunther McGrath (Wall Street Journal 1992) of the Wharton School's entrepreneurial center found that entrepreneurs, no matter what country they call home, think alike. Campbell found that the basic pattern in the hero's journey is the same in every culture.
Heroes bring change. Campbell (1968) refers to the constant change in the universe as "The Cosmogonic Cycle" that "unrolls the great vision of the creation and destruction of the world which is vouchsafed as revelation to the successful hero." This recalls Joseph Schumpeter's theory of entrepreneurship as creative destruction. A successful entrepreneur simultaneously
destroys and creates a new world, a new way of life. Henry Ford destroyed the horse and buggy age while creating the world of the automobile. Campbell's hero finds that the world "suffers from a symbolical deficiency" and "appears on the scene in various forms according to the changing needs of the race." Changing needs and deficiencies correspond to the changing market conditions or the changing desires for products. The entrepreneur is the first person to perceive changing needs. Campbell believed that people become creative when they engage in an activity, pursue a career or entrepreneurial venture, because it is what one loves to do and because it bestows on one a sense of personal importance and fulfillment. It is not the social system that dictates that it be done; rather, the drive comes from within. It is this courageous action that opens up doors and creative possibilities that did not previously exist.
Relationship of the Hero's Journey to Aging
The hero's goal is now to find a purpose in life. Campbell's and Erik Erikson's (1963) heroes are similar, because the hero's journey is a quest for personal identity that can be found in service to others or to society, or in finding and delivering a boon. During the generativity versus stagnation stage, which comes in the second half of life, in Erikson's eight ages of man, people become willing to take risks in order to be creative or make their mark upon society. Generativity involves establishing and guiding the next generation, but it also includes productivity and creativity, which, along with the willingness to take risks, are essential to entrepreneurship. For Campbell, the act of creating involves the willingness to take a risk and cross a boundary into a new domain of ideas. To be unwilling or afraid to do so is to be controlled by what he calls "the elder psychology," or the unwillingness to strike out on one's own and take risks.
The paradox, then, is that although entrepreneurship may be an important path for people to discover themselves and "do something meaningful for society" as they become older, they must resist this "elder psychology," which Campbell believes blocks risk taking, creativity, and entrepreneurship. When a person is able to champion things becoming, he or she can achieve generativity by making a significant and unique contribution to society. If one is able only to maintain the status quo, he or she will stagnate and will remain self-centered and unable to contribute to society. Almost by definition, entrepreneurs are champions of things becoming.
In counseling and advising the elderly in the area of entrepreneurial activity, it is useful to keep these insights from mythology and psychology in mind. They deal with the deepest of needs and forces in the human psyche. For an older person contemplating a new business venture, it will be helpful to recognize that it is not just the potential financial gains or losses involved that are
important. The entrepreneurial act may be a life-defining and self-defining act, one with deep personal and perhaps even spiritual implications for the individual and his or her relationship with society. Entrepreneurs are often seen as having different attitudes toward risk: what a nonentrepreneur might view as a great financial risk, the entrepreneur may see as a cost of learning and adventuring. The venture is an end in itself, more than the profit. People who start new businesses in the second half of life may view risk in this way, because they feel such a strong need to define themselves and contribute to society.
Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton. NJ: Princeton
Erikson, Erik H. 1963. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.
Jung, Carl G. 1956. Symbols of Transformation. New York: Harper TorchbookslBollingen Library.
Maddox, George L., et al. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Aging. New York: Springer.
Wall Street Journal. 1992. 6 February; A1.