Setting up a multigenerational enterprise can be a smart way for retired baby boomers and their grown children to combine resources and abilities.
After Bert Weber retired from his three-decade teaching career, he occupied himself with consulting contracts but kept hunting for more satisfying, full-time work. Son Christian was running a small environmental nonprofit; he, too, was unfulfilled.
Christian had dreamed of owning a craft brewery, and father and son enjoyed home brewing together. On a long drive one weekend five years ago, they decided to take the plunge and go into the beer business. “I liked the concept,” Bert said. “I loved the idea of my son for a business partner.”
So despite having no experience running a brewery, they created a plan and secured a small-business loan. In 2014, they opened Common Roots Brewing in South Glens Falls, New York. Now, the brewery has 20 employees and is growing steadily, set to sell 5,000 barrels of beer this year.
Setting up a multigenerational enterprise can be a smart way for retired baby boomers and their grown children to combine resources and abilities. The adult children bring hustle, and they’re comfortable with the latest technologies. Parents often offer capital and work experience.
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That said, the financial risks associated with entrepreneurship are daunting, especially for those in their retirement years. The time to recover from a failed enterprise is short, and the consequences of financial losses may be considerably greater for an older person. On top of that, navigating the transition from parent and child to business partners isn’t always easy. And starting a new business is always stressful.
Looking back over the past three years, Christian sounds relieved. “We aren’t living as much hand-to-mouth,” he said. Bert added, “I’m sleeping better now.”
Small-business researchers don’t offer much in the way of data on how many new multigenerational startups there are like the Webers’. Still, there are a few statistics: 25.4 percent of new businesses formed in 2016 were started by people ages 55 to 64, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, up from 14.8 percent in 1996.
Largely because of two major societal shifts, it’s quite likely that rising numbers of retirement-age parents and their adult children will at least consider making the leap into entrepreneurship together.
First, the combination of longer lives and inadequate retirement savings is pushing more older Americans to earn an income well past their early 60s. The search for meaning and money typically involves encore careers, bridge jobs, part-time employment and entrepreneurship.
“From what I see, the boomer generation gets to the retirement years, and they’re choosing a different version of retirement than the World War II generation,” said Dennis Ceru, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Multigenerational entrepreneurship is “one such option,” he said.
The second factor is evidence that many boomer parents and their adult children get along well enough to at least entertain the prospect of starting a business.
“Most boomers have a much more friend-based, adult-to-adult relationship with their children than boomers did with their parents,” said Steve King, partner at Emergent Research, a consulting firm in Lafayette, California, that concentrates on the small-business economy. “It’s a big social shift.”
For the first time since the 1960s, living with parents is the most common household arrangement for the 18- to 34-year-old age group, reports Pew Research Center. In 2014, more than 32 percent of young adults lived with their parents, up from 20 percent in 1960.
Much of that reflects tough economic circumstances and delayed marriage, experts say, but the trend seems broad enough that it may also involve lifestyle choices and good relationships.
Comparing intergenerational survey data from the 2000s with data from the 1980s, the authors of the academic study “The Baby Boomers Intergenerational Relationships” note that in 1988, fewer than half of parents surveyed offered advice to their grown child in the past month, compared with 89 percent in 2008. In addition, 31 percent provided practical assistance in 1988, compared with 69 percent two decades later.
These results echo the key finding from a 2012 survey commissioned by AARP: that young adults “communicate more, interact more, and are comfortable sharing more with their parents compared to boomers when they were young adults.”
For parents who go into business with their grown children, a foundation of mutual trust and continuing communication should improve the odds of success, King said. Take the experience of the Burches of Hudson, Wisconsin, who decided, over lunch one day, to open a retail store a decade ago.
The lunch included Elizabeth, a part-time college professor, then 65; her husband, Dan, a retired pastor, then 69; and two of their children, Sarah, 37, and Leah, 43. They debated how to lean against what they saw as increasing polarization in society, while also earning an income. Together, they came up with an idea: a gift shop selling sustainable, often handmade items with what they called bipartisan appeal. Six weeks later, they opened the Purple Tree in Hudson, with the parents putting up some $10,000. (The name plays off purple as a mix of red and blue.)
“We don’t always agree,” said Sarah, the only family member working full time at Purple Tree. “But we have managed to successfully agree to disagree, and we have been able to reach compromises. We always find a way to talk things out.” The rest of the family shares income from the shop.
Less benign factors can play a role in the embrace of multigenerational entrepreneurship. Age discrimination can be a major hurdle to employment for those 50 and older. At the same time, young people can find it tough to land a job that’s engaging and offers a career path. For both age cohorts, starting a business can often be a better alternative.
For all the successes, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 20 percent of small businesses fail in their first year, and by Year 5, half close. Those are discouraging odds, especially for older Americans contemplating retirement. In addition, not all families get along. Even for family members who do like one another, dealing with blurred boundaries can be trying.
“It gets back to the relationship challenge,” King said.
Most important, starting a business typically means putting in long hours, including weekends. Many people of retirement age look forward to more flexible schedules, even if they keep earning an income.
“Most people choose to scale back and pursue other interests,” Ceru, the professor of entrepreneurship, said.