Should young people like Mark Zuckerberg be the face of innovation?

Credit: Deny Terrio

Does Age Help Innovators?

May 31, 2013

The older you are, the better your ability to innovate, says Tom Agan, co-founder and managing partner of Rivia and author of the recent New York Times article “Why Innovators Get Better with Age."

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When you think of the face of innovation, what do you picture? Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook while at Harvard? The Stanford University students who created the explosively successful app Snapchat? Given the media’s focus on stories like these, you might think that innovation was a young person’s game.

Age Before Beauty

But Tom Agan, co-founder and managing partner of Rivia, disagrees. When it comes to innovation, he argues, age beats youth.   

“The academic research shows that innovation potential peaks around 40, but it’s very, very low at age 25,” he says. “In fact, a 55 year old has eight times the innovation potential of a 25 year old. Even a 65 year old has three times the innovation potential of a 25 year old.”

But despite the research, the 21st century workplace is geared towards young workers and youth innovation. While businesses recruit college graduates, they encourage older workers to leave. Agan refuses to name corporate names, but he insists that he has seen workplaces use this ageist formula time and time again — and he thinks it’s a mistake.

“Even though younger people might have less preconceived notions, the value of experience actually outweighs that, particularly if you’re in a situation where you’re looking at incremental or sustained innovation,” he says. “Experience becomes very, very important in that context.”

At 75, Les Wexner of Limited Brands is one of America's oldest CEOs.
Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan / AP Images

The Youth-Centric Workplace

We idolize youth in every area of our culture from advertising to Hollywood — an aspect of modern society we recently discussed with Jared Diamond. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we celebrate young innovators as well. In fact, Agan argues, the roots of our youth culture extend thousands of years in history.

“For many, many years of human existence — maybe the entirety of human existence — we have had to rely upon younger people,” he explains. “We had to rely on younger people because we needed their strength, their physicality…[and] we needed lots of them because we had high mortality rates.”

But in today’s offices, employees need the ability to absorb and analyze large amounts of information, not employ brute force. Unfortunately, Agan says, corporations have yet to realize the importance of experience in innovation. He thinks bias against older employees extends all the way to the top of the corporate ladder — not even CEOs are immune.

“I know they’re not the most sympathetic group of people in the world. People don’t have a lot of empathy for them,” Agan says. “But The Economist just showed a figure that about 80 percent of CEOs don’t make it to retirement. So they’re getting under the same pressure of being pushed out the door before they fulfill their full contributions to an organization.” 

And if a CEO doesn’t lend her full contribution to an organization, Agan argues, that organization may not compete at its full potential — so the story of ageism in the workplace might be one of missed opportunities.   

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