Self employed and over 50 during Covid times: mixed experiences

Self employed people – who make up half of the over 50s – have faced financial struggles and exemptions from government schemes since lockdown, but some are thriving. Beena Nadeem reports.


The number of over 65’s in self-employment has doubled over the last five years. That’s one in every 10 people in this age group, compared to the tiny one in 300 who are employees. The figures are even higher for the over 50’s in general, where the self-employed make up almost 50% of numbers.

But as Covid throws us firmly into yet another lockdown, those older workers who are self-employed are also beginning to feel a crippling financial pinch. Despite government assurances that they will receive up to 80% of their trading profits (significantly better than the 40% original touted for this period) there is still a huge group of self-employed who are missing out on financial assistance.

Self-employed people who are not eligible to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme include:

– Self-employed people who pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company, although they will have some of their salary covered by the furlough scheme if they operate through PAYE.
– Those with a trading profit of more than £50,000.
– The relatively newly self-employed, as more recent tax details are not being considered.
– Those who make less than half of their pay from self-employment.

Because of the omissions above, the number of self employed people claiming benefits has burgeoned – doubling in number since the first lockdown. An analysis by the over 50’s campaigning organisation Rest Less, which looked at official unemployment data, found the number of  over 50’s claiming Universal Credit has increased by 130% from around 287,000 since May 2019. Yet, at just £409.89 a month on average, UC hardly covers rent and living costs. And those who happen to have a partner in work, have £16,000 or more in savings or can draw on a pension, are frozen out entirely.

Missing out on help

The pandemic has hit people like freelance musician and composer Mike, who is not eligible for the self-employment grant as a portion of his work comes from being an employee. In addition, he has lost all the income he usually makes on tours, filming work and work composing and creating music.

The 62 year old from London has spent 40 years building up his business, “doing anything from mediation music to hard rock” while also being the sound engineer for a well known singer. “That was my main income for the last two years, and that has stopped completely. This year we had 40 shows planned.”

Because Mike owns a small music label, he wasn’t’ able to access any funding as freelancer, instead being forced to take a bounce back loan. “But I haven’t touched it – it’s money I owe.”

Mike adds: “What I hear is that I fall between the brackets, yet I can’t do anything now to earn money. I have to accept this is my career over, what I’ve worked for … playing more gigs; it’s basically all my dreams.”

Lockdown business boomers

For others Covid has provided an opportunity to breathe new life into their business, with some even able to forego government support because their work has flourished.

They include 73-year-old Stella Ralfini, a self-employed beauty consultant and love coach who teaches Tantric sex, usually at festivals, workshops and seminars.

“I lost so much income. I didn’t fit into any of the funding categories because I’m a 73-year-old freelancer who’s a pensioner. I couldn’t work before this for a year due to cancer and needed an operation, and this wasn’t taken into consideration. I also have around £16,000 in savings, which meant I couldn’t get any help, not even with housing costs,” she says. Ralfini says she couldn’t see a way forward until she had a ‘lightbulb moment’.

On Valentine’s Day next year, she will take her offering online and provide Tantric love camps for couples. These, she says, can be especially useful during Covid as more couples are forced to spend more time together. She has already picked up sponsors and business partners to work with.

For Paola Dyboski-Bryant, 51, lockdown breathed new life into her already successful bubble business, meaning she was able to reject any help form of government help.

“During lockdown we sold 10,000 units and broke all records,” she says. “Suddenly everybody went to shop online. And we were luckily ready for that.”

Her business, Dr Zigs [pictured], which operates from her home in rural north Wales, sells kits which create colossal, colourful, eco-friendly bubbles. “They just became such a symbol of hope for the kids, it was phenomenal. Overnight, our sales quadrupled,” she says. Dyboski-Bryant, who has also donated £10,000 for a local ICU unit, says: “I didn’t need the money. We’re talking about a country with child poverty and hunger so there was no need for me to apply for anything.”

Janine Shaw, who is self-employed and regularly commissioned to work for woodland charity Wild about our Woods, says she couldn’t work during lockdown. “A lot of the work was predominantly with children, young people and families, based in small groups. In lockdown, all of our schoolwork ended.” She lost a lot of income and did manage to tap into some funding self-employment funding.

However, after a month, she tapped into Lottery funding to launch a new programme for the charity to ‘diversify our recipients’. “We thought of two programmes to offer people a chance to connect with nature at home. One with older people (aged 65 plus) and one for primary school children, enabling us to connect with 2,300 people who we wouldn’t have worked with before,” she says.

Meanwhile Marie Brown, who describes herself as 49 ½, says her business, Beyond the Kitchen Table, also thrived under lockdown, meaning she did not require government help.

“I’ve been doing better than pre-lockdown,” she says. Brown helps small business owners build websites, as well as running the odd workshop.

“At the start of lockdown many were not sure they would have a business at all. By May, I was inundated with enquiries as people needed a strong online presence,” she says. Brown now has a 10-week waiting list and has even developed websites for a swimming pool company and a bridal make-up artist.

No support, no loans, but a business that has moved forward

Anna McKay, founder of sleep device company Zeez Sleep, has spent the last six years ploughing her own money and time into the research and development of an innovative sleep tool. The former intellectual rights lawyer was about to launch a new version when Covid hit, and on top of this, had dodged being defrauded by a large criminal gang.

She says: “I wasn’t eligible for anything because I have never paid myself – I have lived off my savings and a little rental income. I could have loaned money to the company and used it to pay myself, but this was a level of administration that seems so pointless, given that we have always been so busy. I couldn’t get business rates relief either because, at the time of our last accounts, we were still in development,” she says.

However, despite this, Anne says she and developer Steve Walpole have pushed the launch of a new version forward and have already tested this with 1,000 people with excellent results. She adds that Covid is introducing a whole new market to the product. Before it was bought by women, mostly those with kids, or those reaching the menopause. Now they’re seeing a new market – young men working from home.

Having to furlough

But many self-employed people are struggling. Lauren Reading, who owns Truly’s restaurant in Bournemouth, says she has had to furlough all her front of house staff and worries she won’t survive until Easter. Having only been open for 18 months before the first lockdown, she launched a grocery delivery service in the wake of Covid. “We had plenty of loo roll and pasta,” she says.

Using a government grant, she says she was able to pay outstanding debts and her landlord gave her three months’ rent free.

Although summer was busy with a tourist trade show, Reading had to nearly halve her tables to accommodate social distancing which hit trade hard. When the 10pm curfew came in the business could no longer accommodate two dinner sittings. “No one wants to eat dinner at 5pm!” she says.

After this, things got worse. “Two of my staff tested positive for Covid. The whole team were forced to isolate for two weeks and we were paying full rent and didn’t get any government support. I took a bounce back loan, but it’s just more debt”.

The first day they could reopen was cruelly on November 4th – the first Monday of the latest lockdown. “We’re scared this time. We’ll have to do well with takeaway meals. I have had to furlough three staff, but have kept my chef. We need to sell enough meals to pay for him and cover our overheads,” she says.

“I spend every waking moment working on what we can do that won’t be affected by lockdown – for example, Christmas delivery, but I can’t see how we will survive through to Easter.”

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