Bridge Wonder and Wisdom: Against Ageism in the Workplace

Susan B. Anthony, the founder of the women’s rights movement, once said, “The older I get, the more power I have to help the world; I am like a snowball — the further I am rolled the more I gain.”

Wise words expressed by someone living a full life.

Now a quote from a younger soul, “Younger people are just smarter.”

Mark Zuckerberg said this at a Y Combinator Startup School Event back in 2007 — when he was 22 years old. Now that Zuckerberg has reached the ripe old age of 32, my hunch is that he might object to the claims of his younger self.

As the founder of a design and innovation firm, I frequently collaborate with organizations to discover the most effective tools, technologies, and teams for driving their business forward. And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past 10 years running this company is that bridging the gap between the wonder of youth and the wisdom that comes with age is a powerful innovation lever.

Yet discrimination against older workers is one of the most pervasive and accepted forms of prejudice. Ageism isn’t just something I despise; it’s altogether bad business to fail to see the value and wisdom that comes from work warriors that are 40 and above.

Age is an asset, not a liability. A healthy work environment has a mix of talent of all ages.

Though we often romanticize the young entrepreneurs in their 20s who change the world, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, more often than not these are anomalies. The entrepreneurs who founded or co-founded Gap, Lululemon, Genentech, IBM, Siebel Systems, and Home Depot were at least 40 years old. One study found that a typical business founder was more likely to be in their late 30s or older.

Another study found that Americans aged 55 to 64 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity. And research suggests that entrepreneurs get better with age. Based on Erik Erikson’s model of the eight stages of psychosocial development, from the ages of 40 to 64, people become more concerned with helping future generations.

Research has shown that “great minds produce their greatest insights at substantially older ages today than they did a century ago.” For example, the average age of nobel laureates rose from 30 in 1900 to 38 in 2000. Who knows, due to advancements in cryonics and cell repair, the average recipient might be a 100 years old in 2100.

In Originals, Adam Grant points out that “conceptual innovators are sprinters, experimental innovators are marathoners.” The latter tend to be older entrepreneurs. As for older employees, evidence suggests that when companies solicit suggestions from their employees, it is the older sages who come up with more and better ideas than their younger co-workers, with the best ideas coming from those over 55 years old. Contrary to some assumptions, creativity increases in our middle years.

An instinct for creativity combined with a drive to help and give back are traits that companies should be competing to hire.

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, talks about the difference between wartime and peacetime organizations in “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” In peacetime, businesses that have a competitive advantage can focus on expanding their market share and growth. But in wartime, a company is faced with threats such as market change, competition, and disruption.

The data shows that older employees are reliable, stress-resilient, engaged, and though they may take more time to learn a new trick than their younger counterparts, they make fewer mistakes.

Experienced executives that have been with a company through peacetime and wartime will bring their knowledge and wisdom to companies that have not been through turbulent waters.

These are the kind of men and women who will steer the organizational ship through challenging straits.

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