"I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing," Henry Miller admits with a laugh. In fact, Miller, 58, a former Xerox Corp. executive who was downsized two years ago, isn't even in the right realm. After spending more than three decades in the impersonal, male-dominated corporate world, Miller now finds himself in women's territory--and he's having the time of his life. He is running a business in a traditionally female-run field: the boarding, training and grooming of dogs. His Boom Towne Canine Center in Farmington, N.Y., is heading for 2005 sales of $400,000 and employs up to 15 people, depending on demand.
"I should be retired and sitting on a rocking chair somewhere in North Carolina," says Miller, who has trained and shown various breeds of dogs as a hobby for 30 years and owns eight--seven Papillons and a Bernese mountain dog. "But this is my dream and something I love doing, even if it's not typical for guys my age." Or, he might add, for guys, period.
Miller is far from alone. Baby boomers who for one reason or another retire early are increasingly starting reverse-gender businesses. The phenomenon is growing at a rate of about 20% a year, estimates John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based international outplacement firm. The boomers, often disenchanted with corporate America, are spurred by a desire to control their own destiny. In striking out on their own, they feel a powerful sense of liberation and of not giving a rip what others think--two emotions that tend to accompany aging, observes Debra Mandel, a Los Angeles psychologist who counsels seniors. And they recognize that if they are going to take a leap, now is the time to do it.
"When you're younger, you do what you think you should be doing to support your family, become established in the workplace and fit in with the crowd," says Gene Fairbrother, a Dallas-based small-business consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed. "When you get older, these conventionalities don't seem to matter anymore, and you feel more comfortable doing what you want--as long as you enjoy it and can make some money at it."
The upshot is that older men are running day-care centers, word-processing firms and pet businesses and senior women are operating farming companies, residential-construction firms and plumbing outfits. Ellen Freudenheim, author of Looking Forward: An Optimist's Guide to Retirement, attributes many of the reversals to what she calls gender envy. "Women want the power that the men have, and men want to experience the better interpersonal relationships that females have," says Freudenheim.
Moreover, what is normally preferable in mega companies--youth and employees working in traditional gender roles--is less important in the world of the self-employed, points out Michael Stull, who directs a center for entrepreneurship at California State University at San Bernardino. "Clients and customers don't care if you have gray hair and if you're a man running a business in a woman's world or vice versa," Stull says. "They want to know that you have experience and that you can do the job better than anyone else, and often prefer someone who is older and more seasoned."