By Jenean Chung

Don’t be fooled by baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg: Contrary to popular opinion, 20-somethings aren’t the only ones responsible for successful startups these days. Sure, we may be obsessed with youth, but don’t forget, it’s also wasted on the young, which is why a growing number of people are starting businesses in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. For baby boomers, with newfound free time and either financial freedom or financial insecurity on their hands, the entrepreneurial path has become more appealing, more viable and more rewarding.

“When people become middle-aged, they have experience, knowledge, savings — they just have this fire in the belly to create something, to make it big before they retired,” says Vivek Wadhwa, an academic, writer and entrepreneur. “They worry if they don’t start something now, they’ll be left out, so they take the plunge.”

In 2008, at the height of the entrepreneurial youth renaissance, Wadhwa released breakthrough research that showed the number of founders older than 50 was double the number of founders younger than 25, and the number of founders over age 60 was also twice the number of founder under 20. The average age of male founders was 40, and female founders’ average age was 41. In fact, Wadhwa’s research revealed that the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity had shifted to boomers in the 55-64 age group. That trend continued through 2009, according to a Kaufmann Foundation study released last year, and Wadhwa says he expects the boom in boomer entrepreneurship to continue through 2012.

“We suspect the age of entrepreneurs is actually increasing,” Wadhwa says. “When we did the study, it created a lot of controversy, because it went against the stereotypes in Silicon Valley. The perception here is that only the young can innovate and that any kid out of school can build a Facebook. People here believe it’s all about youth, but we found that isn’t the case.”

Ageism in the entrepreneurial community is a fairly recent development. Wadhwa points out that Ben Franklin discovered electricity at 46 and invented bifocals after age 70, Sam Walton built Walmart in his mid-40s and Ray Kroc built McDonald’s in his early 50s. Wadhwa finds it ironic Silicon Valley may scorn boomers, while its very icon of innovation, Steve Jobs, introduced the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad all after age 45. “When he was young, he got kicked out of Apple,” and some of his greatest innovations came “with age and maturity,” Wadhwa says.

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