Does a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old?
My Generation X daughter, who sometimes must teach me a new tech shortcut twice (okay, maybe four times) would answer boldly and quickly, “No way.”
Older is slower. So how could her mother possibly be better at new thinking and fresh ideas than, say, her dewy-faced, Lululemon-clad Spin instructor? Older, slower, more innovative – is this shockingly hard to believe? It seems it is.
The common denominator created by the media for innovation is “young” and getting “younger.” Seventeen-year old Nick D’Aloisio brokered a headline-grabbing deal with Yahoo for a reported $30m for creating an app that summarizes news stories. At 15, he was the youngest person to receive venture capital funding.
In reality, media darlings of innovation like a sweet faced Zuckerberg, a young Gates or Nick – who can now easily purchase one of only 60 of the coveted Italian-made Pagani Zonda Roadster F C12S 7.3 ($667,000) after only a year of driving experience – are exceptions. But the media has a job to do and one of the reasons older workers don’t get much recognition for innovation is they don’t generally produce hot Web apps that make drop dead news.
Yet we are all swayed by common stereotypes and cultural narratives about aging and innovation that are dead wrong.
Here is research to establish the reality about age and innovation:
- The average founder of a high-tech start-up isn’t a whiz-kid, but a mature 40-year-old engineer or business type, says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures. What’s more, older entrepreneurs have higher success rates when they start companies.
- The age at which entrepreneurs are more innovative and willing to take risks seems to be going up. According to data from the Kauffman Foundation, the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-to-64 age group, with people older than 55 almost twice as likely to found successful.
- The directors of the five top-grossing films of 2012 are all in their 40s or 50s and two of the biggest-selling authors of fiction for 2012 – Suzanne Collins and E. L. James are 50 plus.
- What about regular workers? The research in one of Germany’s largest companies showed that the older workers not only had great ideas for making procedures and processes more efficient, but their innovations also produced significantly higher returns for the company than those of workers in younger age groups. Birgit Verwonk, a Dresden University of Applied Sciences economist and author of the study, says the findings were so surprising for the company (which wasn’t named in the study) that it is now phasing out its early-retirement program.
- And here’s the best news. According to research by Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University, a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old.
If organizations want innovation to flourish, the conversation needs to change. Encourage senior workers to stay put, open the hiring doors to mid-lifers, and provide sabbaticals to rejuvenate new thinking and continued high performance.
And that older woman in your meeting who you think is dreaming of retirement? She’s not. She’d thinking up the next new big business idea for her soon-to-be start-up. So mosey on over and have a chat. Could be a good career move for you.