Innovation is not the sole domain of youthful inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators. When I visit companies — many of them populated by 20-somethings — and see fewer gray hairs on the people working there, I think: The less gray, the lesser the company’s innovation potential.
Greying and Innovating
Why? Simply put, older innovators have more work experience and have lived longer. When compared to less seasoned innovators, seasoned innovators have decades of industry expertise, as well as a stronger understanding of what it takes to compete — and succeed — in the real world. Plus, the experienced innovator has more extensive professional and personal networks. These networks are invaluable when it comes to leveraging resources and calling on people who can help.
And those connections — combined with deep pools of knowledge and experience — might just be what it takes to achieve innovation success. The Kauffman Foundation conducted a survey in 2009 of 549 startups that were operating in high-growth, innovation-centric industries including aerospace, defense, healthcare and computer electronics. The survey concluded that people over 55 years old were nearly twice as likely as people in their twenties and early thirties to launch successful startups in these innovation-heavy industries.
If you’re a baby boomer who has dreamed about starting a business, wait no longer. It’s important to recognize that the world’s young, innovative entrepreneurs are anomalies. Those of us with gray hair have wisdom and experience going for us, and, yes, we know we’ve become more risk-averse as we grow older. Yet, the Great Recession of 2008 saw many older workers lose jobs that will never come back. Many of us decided it was time (what better option was there?) to launch a business.
The laid-off became the owner; the expendable became the innovator; the knocked down stood up.
Young vs. Old
Innovators and entrepreneurs come in all ages, of course. The more common image of an innovator is the young entrepreneur who operates a business in a makeshift office, or the college-age computer geek who designed a cool app in his dorm room. These are the legends of Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Dell and Apple. And, yes, even Albert Einstein, who published five game-changing papers at the tender age of 26. The year, referred to as Einstein’s “annus mirabilis” (miracle year), was 1905. One of the publications introduced Einstein’s theory of relativity while the other described E = mc2. Not bad, kid.
But these examples are the exceptions and not the rule. In a paper titled “Age and Great Invention,” Benjamin Jones of Northwestern’s Kellogg School reports that a 55-year-old has significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old. Jones’ research concluded that if an organization wants innovation to thrive, emphasis should be on the experienced worker, not the younger one. To keep innovators around longer makes sense: It takes time for an idea to evolve from its birth to its full-blown commercialization stage. This evolution is time-consuming and is oftentimes helped along by the innovators themselves, which reasons that the more experienced the innovator, the longer the expertise and the shorter the evolutionary timeline.
The older innovator is also likely to occur in industry. Take a 38-year-old problem solver: If he or she stays in industry, it will probably take half of the academics’ time — ten years — to reach innovative stardom. Those ten years are spent educating the marketplace about the innovation’s origin, its implications and its commercial applications. That puts nearly 50 years of age before the bright lights of the innovation spotlight shines on that particular solution.
An Aging World
It reasons, then, that as innovators grow older, so does the world. Consider the predictions of an aging global population: By 2030, the average age in the United States will rise from 37 to 39; in Europe, the average age will go from 40 to 45; and, in Japan, the rise is from 45 to 49. The implication is that an aging population combined with declining birthrates in developed countries could result in a huge deficit in the world’s creative potential. The challenge is whether or not developed countries will continue to compete, expand, create wealth and maintain living standards while depending on an aging society of entrepreneurs, innovators and workers.
But, what about these theories about growing old?
Many of the most common stereotypes and clichés about aging are deeply flawed. Youthful entrepreneur? Hardly. The prototypical founder of a startup is a 40-something male engineer or a 30-something businesswoman. These people have spouses, children, mortgages and car payments. They lead very hectic lives and, for better or for worse, decided to leave the comfortable, yet often constricting, life of working for other people to strike out on their own. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the largest ongoing study of entrepreneurial and innovation dynamics throughout the world, people over 35 years old made nearly 50 percent of worldwide entrepreneurial and innovation activity in 2012.
So, where is the breathless media coverage of older innovators and their problem-solving solutions? Not surprisingly, innovative products and services launched by the gray hairs don’t fit so nicely into a standard 8-second sound byte. Nor is what’s innovative always possible to describe in non-technical language. Stefan Theil of Newsweek summed it up this way: “Companies started by older workers don’t get much recognition because they don’t generally produce hot mobile apps or other easily understood products. Instead, those companies tend to be involved with more complex technologies and in industries like biotech, energy, or IT hardware. The companies also tend to sell products and services to other businesses, which consumers rarely see but which do most of the heavy lifting in powering innovation and economic growth.”
The Mature Brain
Again, conventional wisdom has it that innovation is the domain of the younger set. However, the aging brain is as capable as its younger counterpart when it comes to creativity and innovation. Research concludes that as people grow older, their neural connections weaken from age; this often results in a middle-age brain that is slower at receiving, processing and transmitting information. That person may not think as sharply or as quickly as he or she once did, and reaction times may also be slower than they once were.
Not to mention that an older person may have a harder time multitasking than a younger one. (But who is to say that younger people are effective at multitasking? Show me one effective multitasking millennial, and I’ll buy you an early bird dinner with my AARP card discount.) Yes, the older person, with age, becomes more forgetful and more distracted. However, in today’s all-information-all-the-time world, who among us can remember everything and be laser-focused on everything all of the time? No one, of course.
Like a Fine Wine…
So is it true — that we really do get better with age?
I like what the author of “The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young,” Gary Small, reports in his book. As the director of UCLA’s Center on Aging, now known as the UCLA Longevity Center, Small reported that human brain circuitry works better when we are in our 40s and 50s than it does in our 20s and 30s. His research concluded that we think smarter and make better innovative connections as we grow older.
That’s good enough for me. Yet, I was intrigued by the notion of older versus younger mental acuity, and my curiosity led me to a book on cognitive aging. University of Virginia professor Timothy A. Salthouse is the author of “Major Issues in Cognitive Aging.” Professor Salthouse writes, “Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence. Assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.”
Take that, youngsters. Professor Salthouse also reported on considerable variation in neural performance among different people of the same age, even citing research that pointed to improvements in neural performance as people grew older. Salthouse found that improved mental abilities correlated positively to key elements of innovation and creativity, which he defines as empathy, subject matter expertise and curiosity.
The Empathy Factor
These elements are distinguishing ingredients in an innovation methodology based on human-centered processes and input. The method is called design thinking innovation, and it has been successfully applied by companies such as Apple, Procter & Gamble, FedEx and IDEO. With heavy emphasis on empathy and the human factor, design thinking innovation is a human-centric approach to getting problems solved.
In my opinion, any innovation methodology emphasizing empathy is right for today’s world. Why? Empathy is paramount in the problem solving process due to the importance of understanding how a product or service will be used. Older people are more empathetic than younger people; that’s not being disrespectful to younger people, but it is based on the development that goes hand in hand with growing older and experiencing more of life.
In addition, the older innovator is better at seeing the big picture and in defining how human-centric innovation will actually work in the real world. Of course most young people have better short-term memories, but they are also limited when it comes to having the expertise that contributes to the creation of successful innovations. The following quote from Steve Jobs sums it up in typical Jobsian fashion: “A lot of young people in technology haven’t had diverse experiences. They don’t have enough ‘dots’ to connect so they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader a persons’ understanding of the human experience, the better the innovation.”
“A lot of young people in technology haven’t had diverse experiences…so they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader a persons’ understanding of the human experience, the better the innovation.” – Steve Jobs
Nudging the Neurons
Sure we older people occasionally lose those “dots.” But most of the time, the loss is only temporary because eventually we’ll locate the important information that’s been tucked away in our brains’ neurons and synapses. To stay mentally sharp, older people must stay vital and remain relevant; experts say this is accomplished by nudging your neurons in creative directions. Also, stay physically and mentally active; challenge and rework your assumptions by stepping out of your mental comfort zone. At every opportunity, actively listen and consider different perspectives and viewpoints that contrast with yours. All the while, keep embracing the innovative process — regardless of your age — because doing so is a positive step in the direction of success.
The secret to longevity? Keep breathing. The secret to innovation success?
Ask an older person.
David Whitney, 53 years old and feeling more innovative every day, serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Whitney teaches a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students at UF. In addition, Whitney is the founding Managing Director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.
Innovating Later In Life
Creative problem solvers are innovating later than they used to. Even though conventional wisdom would have these people performing their best work while they are young, the age at which individuals produce notable innovations and problem-solving ideas has increased steadily. Research from Alex Mesoudi of Durham University shows that the age of eventual Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery, and of inventors when making a significant breakthrough, averaged 38 years of age.
What follows is a 20-year or more process in which the eventual laureate solidifies a reputation characterized by deep subject matter expertise. This period is spent teaching, researching, writing, presenting discoveries at conferences, networking with academic and industry colleagues and being covered by the media. So, that means that someone who is 38 will be approximately 60 years old when he or she receives the Nobel Prize. The formula must be working because the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recently awarded Nobel Prizes in Economics to three American academics aged 60, 67 and 74.