When you think of the word ‘entrepreneur‘, who do you see? You might be inclined to think of a hungry 20-something who dropped out of college to follow his or her dream.

But according to a study (PDF) released by the Kauffman Foundation, it’s not young people who are driving entrepreneurial activity in the United States. No, it’s Baby Boomers.

The study found that over the past decade, the highest level of entrepreneurial activity was seen amongst the 55-64 age group. What about the wunderkinds we see plastered on magazine covers? Their entrepreneurial prowess is largely an illusion:

The 20-34 age bracket, meanwhile, which we usually identify with swashbuckling and risk-taking youth (think Facebook and Google), has the lowest rate. Perhaps most surprising, this disparity occurred during the eleven years surrounding the dot-com boom—when the young entrepreneurial upstart became a cultural icon.

In a related study that looked at 5,000 companies started in 2004, the Kauffman Foundation discovered that two-thirds were started by founders in the 35-54 age bracket. When it came to technology companies specifically, the average age of a founder was 39 “with twice as many over age 50 as under age 25“.

When you think about it, this really isn’t all that surprising. Although stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, make for great stories, they’re great stories precisely because they’re so unusual. When it comes to the reality of entrepreneurship, it makes sense that older people would be more apt to start businesses. After all, an older founder is more likely to have significant experience, greater knowledge, better networks and the financial resources required to start a new venture. The hunger and ambition typically associated with youth can only take you so far.

In looking at what the future holds, the Kauffman Foundation notes that the ongoing recession could increase the incidence of entrepreneurship amongst those under 30 but also points out that other trends, such as the diminishing notion of the ‘lifetime‘ job and longer lifespans, likely supports a healthy crop of old entrepreneurs.

The key takeaway from this? As much as the tech startup community values youth, it’s a bad idea to ignore those who are more experienced and more knowledgeable. Given that the billion and trillion dollar markets of tomorrow aren’t going to be found in the consumer internet, for instance, wisdom is more important than ever. So the next time you’re networking, don’t forget to talk to the guy who looks like he could be your dad. He may not be starting the next Facebook but he could be the founder of the next Cisco.

Photo credit: daveynin via Flickr.