Social entrepreneurship – or business solutions to social issues – has evolved to be the big billion dollar idea over the last three decades. And it is here to stay. Both the developed as well as the developing world, public and philanthropic sectors are pushing for impact investing, and market-based solutions to the most pressing social and environmental challenges.
While this sector is currently a big draw for younger populations, it also holds immense potential for older adults. The number of older persons (aged 60 years or over) is expected to more than double from 841 million people in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050. Yet, this market remains virtually untapped by most social businesses. Additionally, there are very few seniors involved in building start-up companies that will change the world.
An interesting study by the Stanford Social Innovation Review explains why society requires older social entrepreneurs, especially those catering to senior needs. One reason is the fact that majority of social enterprises tend to rely on finding “solutions” to eradicate problems. Whereas any social enterprise providing for older people needs to be oriented towards improving how care is delivered. And who better to improve senior care than older adults themselves?
There are also a number of other reasons why social enterprises and start-ups are rarely inclusive of the ageing population. This includes:
- False Perception of Need: There is a perception that older adults – given their many years in the workforce – do not need the services of social enterprises. However, a large number of older adults are indeed vulnerable to environmental and social shocks and stresses and require innovative social services to deal with these issues.
- Disconnect from User: Older adults tend to be co-opted into the general adult population, when in fact, they are a market in themselves because of their diverse needs and habits.
- Misunderstood Breadth of Population: While there are fewer older adults than younger people in absolute numbers – especially in the developing world where most social businesses work – the ageing population is still a huge untapped market ripe for exponential growth and profit.
- Rhetoric and Access Barriers: As social businesses employ and tend to cater to younger populations, the language of these companies often exclude older adults. Buzzwords such as “Gen X” paint the picture that social enterprises are for young people only. Additionally, social venture incubators and training programs are often hosted at universities, giving the impression that these programs are exclusively for students and young people.
- Technology Misconceptions: Social solutions are increasingly taking the form of apps and e-commerce. While younger populations are more adept and likely to use technology, if designed well, keeping in considerations older adults’ physical and access constraints, elders who are taught to use tech can operate it just as well as their younger counterparts.
While there is no obvious discrimination against older entrepreneurs, the social impact space can be made more conducive for senior innovators. There is a slowly emerging stream of data that is sighting why the world’s ageing population needs to be a part of this revolution, and a small but steady group of programs that work with older people to help them ensure success as older entrepreneurs.
Older adults, despite the current barrier to access, have the potential to revolutionize how society perceives work among the aging and senior care through entrepreneurship.
Sachi Shah is an Economic and Development Professional currently working with a foundation in New York City, USA.