Aging Germans choose entrepreneurship over retirement

Aging Germans choose entrepreneurship over retirementHeike Arnecke, 59, with guests at the adult daycare business she opened 6 years ago.(Photo: Heike Arnecke)BERLIN — Six weeks ago, Silke Wommelsdorf ditched an unhappy 30-year career in corporate sales to open a dog salon. Now the 51-year-old can’t wait to meet her four-legged clients in the morning.”Dogs have been my passion since I was a kid,” she said. “I thought to myself, it’s now or never. I wanted to live my dream.”Wommelsdorf is part of a growing trend of 50- and 60-something Germans who are quitting steady jobs to test the uncertain waters of entrepreneurialism. According to Frankfurt-based research institute KFW, one in 10 new start-ups in Germany has a founder over 55 at the helm. This in a country better known for established giants like Bosch and Mercedes than for its entrepreneurial culture.Projections suggest the wave of middle-age, first-time entrepreneurs shows no sign of letting up, either. Over the past 10 years, the German Economic Institute found, the number of Germans working beyond the retirement age of 65 increased from 5% in 2005 to almost 9% today.Longer life spans, less confidence in the government to provide a decent retirement and growing disillusionment with traditional work are among the factors driving Germans to turn a new page late in their careers, start-up coach Dagmar Schulz said.”People are getting older and older, and they’re sick of being told they’re not good enough by their bosses when they know they are,” she said.Ralf Sange, 54, takes part in a 50-plus entrepreneurial workshop. He started 'Founders 50 Plus' to help his peers into business. (Photo: Ralf Sange)After Japan, Germany’s population is aging and shrinking faster than any other nation, according to the Pew Research Center. That means the government must pay out more in retirement benefits to a growing army of seniors while workforce and tax revenues shrink.Today, about 20% of Germans are over 65, according to the center. By 2050, that number will climb to 32.7%. At the same time, 21.5% of Americans will be over 65 by mid-century.Seeing a potential financial crisis on the horizon, middle-aged Germans expect politicians to increase the retirement age and cut benefits. That’s why many are moving to provide for themselves.Thomas Laux, 52, counts himself among those ranks. “Nowadays, I think you have to help yourself and not hope that the state will act for you,” said Laux, who started a boathouse rental business in 2013.Thomas Laux, 52, sits in the boathouse he leases to holidaymakers. He quit banking to start his boathouse rental business in 2013.  (Photo: Thomas Laux)Like many other older German entrepreneurs, the former banker’s decision to hang up his suit and tie was also driven by a desire for autonomy. “I simply wanted to implement my own ideas and be responsible for the results of my own work,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in a big company anymore … It just didn’t make me happy anymore.”Despite widespread disbelief and concern among his friends, Laux said his decision was a carefully calculated risk. With ample savings to rely on and no debts, he purchased his first boathouse in 2014. After a successful season, he invested in a second one this year.During a lull in the tourist season between October and April, he offers his 20 years of financial expertise to local businesses on a freelance basis — proof his “conservative, safety-oriented mentality” remains intact, he said.Middle-aged entrepreneurs take part in a 'Founders 50 Plus' workshop. Ralf Sange, 54, started 'Founders 50 Plus' to help his peers into business. (Photo: Ralf Sange)Such entrepreneurs are upending the cautiousness that pervades Germany’s business culture, said Thomas Funke of the RKW Competence Center, a research institute that promotes innovation in small and medium-sized businesses.Traditionally, Germans are reluctant to strike out on their own, he said. Such risk aversion is attributed to a fear of failure in local society, a feeling Germans describe as “angst” that holds people back and makes them cynical about the future.”I do think angst is a good thing because it means you also have to work hard, and Germans do always work hard,” Funke said. “But it also means they’re afraid of trying something new, so it also has a downside.”Business consultant Ralf Sange, 54, is capitalizing on the wave of older entrepreneurs. A few years ago, he launched Founders 50 Plus, a company that caters to his peers who are starting businesses later in life.”Many people are threatened by old-age poverty and that’s a very important aspect behind why founders, older people, want to start up a business,” he said. “There will be more and more of us. I’m certain of that.”For nurse Heike Arnecke, 59, opening her business was a way to supplement her pension. She resigned from a senior post at a large care home six years ago. Now she owns a small adult daycare business with her friend and cherishes her newfound professional freedom.”It was like winning the lottery,” she said. “Of course there are consequences — not every decision is positive. But just being able to make these decisions alone is the best thing ever.”

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