NYT’s Rose-Colored Small Biz Scenario

The New York Times paints an awfully pretty picture of older workers who decide to launch their own businesses. Trouble is, there’s something a bit too pretty about the picture the Times paints.

The premise for this one is smart enough: those 55 and older make up the country’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. Some got bored in retirement, some need the cash after their 401(k)s tanked, many have been unemployed, despite their best efforts, for a long time.

The story, which appears in a special retirement section, is illustrated by a big, beautiful, life-is-good photo. This is a very happy woman: “I’m having a ball,” she said. “I can set up my own hours and work schedule, and do other things I enjoy.”


The Times quotes a couple of consultants who warn that every entrepreneur doesn’t strike gold.

But experts on starting a business strike a cautionary note. “The first piece of advice is don’t buy the mythology — all you need is a new idea, that you wander out there, you run your own B.& B., you start your nonprofit and all the birds are singing,” said Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a group based in San Francisco. “That’s what you’d think if you pick up some of these money magazines. This is a pretty daunting decision, and it’s also a risky one.”

But it doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring those risks.

There’s this nugget:

More than five million Americans age 55 or older run their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, according to the Small Business Administration. And the number of self-employed people ages 55 to 64 is soaring, the agency says, climbing 52 percent from 2000 to 2007.

Excellent. But riddle me this: how many small-business startups don’t make it? The Small Business Administration, we find, says roughly half fail within the first five years. That’s probably helpful data for an unemployed 60-something who’s thinking about tapping what’s left of the 401(k) to launch a long-dreamed-of tattoo parlor.

Some nuts-and-bolts reporting on what it really takes to run a successful small business, and what help is out there, as the Times did recently online, would also be helpful here—and really shows just how daunting it is to do this right.

Instead, Times readers are treated to a string of glamorous start-up success stories. She works with wineries! He’s opening a funky movie theater! He started a magazine! And there’s more:

After retiring from Merrill Lynch in 1998, she founded CyberSenior Services, teaching at senior centers and giving one-on-one classes for $35 to $45 an hour.

“My business spread by word of mouth,” she said, adding that some days demand was so great that she left home at 9 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m.

“I’ve had students up to 90,” she said. “I’m 67 now, and I have a lot of energy to do this because I do what I love. I love teaching people.”

It’s nice to read about successes. But if failure is part of the equation, it should be part of the story, too.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.