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As They Became Seniors, They Started Businesses for Them

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Mary Anne Hardy was at a crossroads in her nursing career. A health program she had been working for ended, and, not ready to retire, she was trying to figure out her next move.

At a conference, she heard about patient advocates, who help people, particularly the elderly and their adult children, navigate the increasingly complex American health care system.

“It was a light bulb,” said Ms. Hardy, 65, who became certified as an advocate and began taking clients in 2013. “I thought about my parents’ experience, and it was a motivator.”

In choosing her new vocation, Ms. Hardy, who lives in Derwood, Md., thought she could help others avoid the “nightmare” she had faced years earlier, she said. Her mother had a stroke and then bowel surgery, followed by a cascade of infections and other preventable ailments. She was transferred from facility to facility, with little communication among medical professionals or with her.

“People feel lost in the medical system,” Ms. Hardy said. With her by their side, they feel they “are taken seriously and listened to.”

Like many older entrepreneurs, Ms. Hardy is looking to her own peers for business opportunities. They are turning their lifelong skills into encore careers selling services and products in the booming senior consumer market. In some cases, like Ms. Hardy’s, their own experiences become catalysts for career moves at a time when others are retiring.

Ms. Hardy is at the intersection of two long-evolving trends — the rising number of later-in-life entrepreneurs and the growth in the so-called longevity market.

In 2019, roughly 25 percent of new entrepreneurs were between 55 and 64, up from 15 percent 20 years earlier, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship.

And in 2015, people 50 and older spent $5.6 trillion on goods and services, outpacing spending by consumers younger than 50, according to a study prepared for AARP by Oxford Economics, a forecasting firm. Besides their higher spending on health care, older people spent more on financial services, durable goods, nondurable goods and motor vehicles. The spending is projected to rise as the 50-plus group expands by 45 percent by 2050, compared with 13 percent for the younger group, the report said.

For older would-be entrepreneurs who want to capture a piece of the aging-related market, “you have to think of how you take your skills and passions and shift them to a new area,” said Mary Furlong, a consultant on longevity marketing.

A writer, for example, could work with clients to create memoirs and legacy letters. A person with financial expertise could become a daily money manager, helping an older person pay bills and handle other paperwork. Move managers could use their organizational or design talents to help older people move to a smaller home.

Usually with short-term training or certification, a person could start a business delivering nonmedical services, like nutritional counseling or wellness coaching.

Midlife owners, particularly those in the health fields, may find themselves with a leg up when dealing with older clients. Several studies show that elderly people are more likely to take advice from peers on nutrition, fall prevention, and the management of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

“I think my age does work to my advantage,” Ms. Hardy said. “It really makes a difference to have someone helping them through the process.” As a patient advocate, she helps clients prepare questions for providers, attends medical appointments with them and reviews their care options.

The key to building Sharon Emek’s business was her prominence as a top insurance executive in New York. In 2010, when she was 64, Ms. Emek founded Work at Home Vintage Experts, or WAHVE, which matches insurance companies with professionals over 50 who work remotely as independent contractors.

Two big changes in the industry convinced Ms. Emek that such a venture had potential. Young workers were snubbing insurance for jobs on Wall Street. And many experienced workers who weren’t ready to retire wanted flexible work arrangements, perhaps moving closer to the grandchildren, she said. Female professionals were particularly worried that they would outlive their savings.

“I thought about this because I was living it myself. There was no way I wanted to retire — I need to be productive,” Ms. Emek said. “I felt I could help other people to continue to work. And companies could have access to amazing talent at a lower price.”

To help build her client base, Ms. Emek tapped her extensive contacts in the insurance industry and in women-in-business groups. “I had credibility from the start,” she said.

She worked out an arrangement with the association representing independent brokers and agents in New York State, which agreed to promote her to its membership in return for a share of revenue when a member used her service. Today, she has arrangements with 30 state associations. She speaks regularly at conferences on industry trends, remote work and phased retirement.

Much of WAHVE is based on technology, and while Ms. Emek had enough expertise to develop the original software, she said, “I knew when I reached my limit.” Initially using savings, she first used an outside programmer and then hired her own specialists.

For the first two years, Ms. Emek took no salary. The company now generates $22 million in revenue and manages 530 contracts, she said. The average age of contractors is roughly 60, and about 90 percent are women.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she said, the firm has “been getting more requests because companies don’t know how to interview and hire remotely.”

Services and products that cater to the homebound elderly are a good fit for older entrepreneurs, experts say. Senior concierges, for example, run errands for older people and keep them company. A person who spent a career in the building trades may consider becoming a certified aging-in-place specialist, someone who modifies homes to keep people safe.

Technologies that monitor the health and safety of older people, such as automated medication dispensers and digital hearing aids, are also finding an eager market.

“Every day, I talk to someone who was an expert in the tech sector who then pivoted into the longevity market,” Ms. Furlong said.

Norman Miosi decided to go the personal chef route, opening a Chefs for Seniors franchise in Nashville in January. His target customer: an elderly person who wants to remain at home but finds preparing fresh and nutritious meals too taxing.

With the over-60 population in the Nashville area projected to grow by 20 percent in the next 10 years, “there will be a lot of potential out there,” Mr. Miosi, 61, said.

Though he loves to cook, Mr. Miosi did not have that professional experience before he took on his second-act occupation. For most of his career, he sold software for Intuit in Buffalo. But he had a tough time finding stable employment when he and his wife, Sandy, moved to Nashville more than four years ago to be closer to their two children and their grandchildren.

Mr. Miosi decided to go into business for himself. In 2019, he responded to an advertisement seeking a Chef for Seniors franchisee.

Each week, Mr. Miosi carries ingredients and his cookware to the kitchens of eight clients in their 60s to their 90s. Wearing a white chef’s jacket, he spends more than two hours preparing four meals, which last a week for two people.

Favorites are salmon, turkey chili and vegetable enchilada casserole. Mr. Miosi alters the dishes — perhaps using less salt — depending on a client’s dietary needs. Some clients chat with him while he cooks.

“It’s not only the nutritious food, it’s the companionship,” he said. “This age group can be neglected.”

A Facebook ad attracted Mr. Miosi’s first clients, including a couple of adult children seeking help for their parents. He has applied to become a “trade partner” with a large retirement community, which would enable him to advertise to its 1,000 households, he said.

For now, Mr. Miosi is just breaking even. He paid $7,000 for a franchise fee, and he must pay for insurance, food, freezer containers, cookware and royalty fees on sales. His goal is to have 30 to 40 clients and hire chefs to work for him. At that point, he said, he expects that his business will provide a comfortable income for the next 10 years or so.

“I don’t really need to retire,” he said. “I can run a business, and it’s not too taxing. And I’m also doing something good for the community.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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