In an age of 28-year-old multi-billionaires and wildly successful college dropouts, the common vision of an innovator is a scruffy 20-year-old, coding late at night.
Because of that idea and the low cost of young talent, companies have let older employees leave as they try to cut costs.
Tom Agan, co-founder of innovation consultancy Rivia, argues in The New York Times that going younger is a remarkably short-sighted strategy.
People get more, not less innovative as they get older, he says. According to research cited by Agan from Northwestern's Benjamin Jones, because of the sheer amount of accumulated knowledge people have developed, it takes time for innovators to reach their peak. It takes longer, on average, as we learn more and our ideas get more complex.
The age where somebody is most likely to make a significant scientific breakthrough (leading to a Nobel prize or great invention) increased from 32 years old to 38 between 1900 and 2000.
We produce vastly more data than we did even 13 years ago, which could intensify that effect. This chart from Jones' paper, "Age And Great Invention," illustrates how much time innovation potential takes to develop:
The most influential ideas often take years to come up with and implement, rather than the weeks it takes to push out a software update.
But despite that, Agan argues, media, investment banks, corporations and even universities are shifting to younger workforces. Older workers stay unemployed longer than younger ones and take bigger pay cuts if they do find something.
In a corporate context, even the most brilliant 26-year-old has limited experience in an industry or of how to get people behind an idea or bring it to market successfully.
One way out of this fix is to implement policies that encourage people to stay in their positions for longer:
"We need to encourage the best performers to stay put, giving them the years — perhaps even decades — to support and lead major innovations from inception to commercial launch," Agan writes.
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