Older Canadians reinvent themselves as 'seniorpreneurs' — in hopes it'll pay off

So-called ‘seniorpreneurs’ are part of a quickly growing group of older Canadians who are working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, as savings rates for all Canadians stall below 2 per cent.

RBC poll: Baby boomers are leading the way in entrepreneurship

Senior entrepreneur Tom Gibson, with sons Daryl Gibson, left, and Kyle Gibson, right, show off a prototype of their portable HavlarGo safe. (Jacqueline Hansen/CBC)

'Seniorpreneurs' are part of a quickly growing group of older Canadians who are choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 — some as a financial necessity, others because they simply aren't ready to call it quits.

A pilot program specifically designed for senior entrepreneurs in Oshawa, Ont., tested the waters to see whether Canadian baby boomers not only want to keep working but also desire to be their own bosses.

The answer, according to program creator Pramilla Ramdahani, is a resounding yes.

"How do we finance this new and growing sector, with so many talented ideas that bring a lifetime of skills to the table?" said Ramdahani.

Ramdahani launched the Seniorpreneur Program 4 Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, or SPICE, and received 75 applications for the 60 positions it offered in its first cohort in 2018-19.

Pramilla Ramdahani hosted the SPICE program out of the Community Innovation Lab in Oshawa, Ont. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Ramdahani says ageism was a big factor in creating a seniors-specific program. She says nearly all of the pilot participants identified ageism in the workplace or in applying for jobs as part of their reasoning for looking for something else.

"Hence, they really want to create their own [jobs]," said Ramdahani.

According to Statistics Canada, nearly 15 per cent of Canadians 65 years and older are still in the workforce, compared to around 6 per cent 20 years ago — and their entrepreneurial spirits are strong.

Nearly half of small business owners are baby boomers, according to a new online poll by Ipsos commissioned by RBC, conducted between June 21 and June 24, 2019. That's almost twice the rate of business ownership than there is among millennials.

For some Canadians, retiring at age 65 isn't a reality, simply because of a lack of pension or savings. A 2018 survey by Sun Life Financial even found that a quarter of retired Canadians are still in debt in their golden years.

Canadians saving less

Some future retirees may continue to be short on savings, as Statistics Canada data shows that the household savings rate has fallen from a high of 21.6 per cent of net disposable income in 1982, to 1.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2019.

Lower interest rates could be one of the reasons for saving less, according to BMO Capital Markets economist Robert Kavcic, because the returns on savings are smaller and borrowing at low rates is tempting.

"I think everybody that's investing now for retirement needs to be ratcheting down their return expectations and what a balanced portfolio is going to give you going forward over the next 10, 15, or 20 years" said Kavcic. 

Bill VanGorder, who's 76, knew he would need to rely on his savings for retirement, as he worked for charities and not-for-profits throughout his life and didn't have a guaranteed pension. However, he says the 2008 financial crisis wiped out about half of his savings.

"It's never really recovered for those of us who were invested at that time," said VanGorder.

Fortunately, VanGorder is able to supplement his savings with a company he started to sell and distribute Nordic walking poles in Atlantic Canada, as well as teach lessons. 

"The extra income is not only helpful but necessary," said VanGorder, owner of Nordic Walking Nova Scotia.

Bill VanGorder, 76, is the owner of Nordic Walking Nova Scotia as well as a nordic walking instructor in Halifax. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

VanGorder also enjoys the challenges involved with learning new skills, such as online marketing and sales.

"If you had told me 20 years ago that somebody of my age would be running an online business and doing so much social networking sales as we do, well, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about actually," laughed VanGorder.

Staying active and relevant is why 65-year-old Tom Gibson took part in Ramdahani's entrepreneur program for seniors in Oshawa. 

Gibson wanted help as he and his two sons developed a business to sell portable safes.

Their HavlarGo safes would provide athletes, parents, and others on the go with a way to secure their valuables if they need to leave them unattended. For example, a baseball player could put their phone and wallet in the small safe, and use the tether to secure it to the bench or dugout while they play.

Entrepreneur Tom Gibson, 65, holds the prototype of a Havlar portable safe that will be featured in an upcoming crowdfunding campaign. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

"I always had that kind of entrepreneurial flair, but I never really had the opportunity. I could see that my sons had it in them as well, and I thought it was a flame that should be nurtured — let's not ignore this," said Gibson, while at the studio of Toronto firm West&SOCIAL, the production company creating a product video for Havlar's upcoming crowdfunding campaign.

Gibson has no plans to retire anytime soon, even though he has a small pension from previous jobs. He is also still working full-time as a business consultant, which helps him contribute to funding the new family business.

"It's about staying engaged. It's about being creative. It's about working with family and friends to do something that hasn't been done before," said Gibson.

Funding gap for senior entrepreneurs

Through the first round of the seniors' entrepreneur program, Ramdahani found a massive hole in terms of funding to support the senior entrepreneurs, including limited grants and loans for their businesses. 

"There is zero support," said Ramdahani.

She wants the next federal government to prioritize funding for seniors' entrepreneurial endeavours, and she hopes to secure other private funding as well to help her expand the SPICE program from 60 participants to 1,000 over three years.

"They have been sitting on these ideas for about 30 to 40 years, so now is the time for them to unleash," said Ramdahani.


Jacqueline Hansen

Senior Business Reporter

Jacqueline Hansen is a senior business reporter for CBC News. Based in Toronto, she's been covering business and other news beats since 2010.