Ageism in innovation

Reaching for your potential, whether old or young. Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Ageism is the –ism none of us should have because no matter what, with good fortune, we’re all going in one direction. That is, we’re all on our way to… old. The ageist thus insults his own future self.

Jamey Austin (see reference below)

I was talking recently to a friend about the difference between working in Europe and working here in Australia, and she said that ageism was way more apparent here in Australia than in the UK, or the Netherlands. She is a senior leader in HR in her mid fifties, and after the local branch of a global company she was working for restructured, she was looking for a job. In her words “Once I got to London, getting a job was instantaneous, I should have moved there a year earlier, rather than looking here (Australia). Here – everyone kept saying, subtly, that I was too old”

That was turning around in my mind, when I came across this statement:

“Staffing innovation labs is painful. Hiring a group of twenty-somethings with impressive digital credentials isn’t easy, as they are in short supply and highly sought after”

Richard Turrin in Innovation Lab Excellence

Which seems to suggest that only twenty-somethings can innovate.

I haven’t seen any evidence for that. I’m not saying it’s always wrong, but I do note that primary digital devices that I use were designed by a forty or fifty-something (Jony Ive) and brought into existence by a sixty-something (Steve Jobs), and one of the people who is strongly catalysing society with his tech innovation is 48 year old Elon Musk.

The stereotype about who’s successful in tech — namely, younger, white men — affects the way we interact with people who have more experience. It can cause people to think they’re less creative and innovative, though we know that is not true. David Galenson, a researcher at the University of Chicago, showed that younger and older workers are innovative in different ways. In fact, older people tend to be better at solving more complex, deep-rooted problems, because they often have a deeper level of understanding of current systems gained over the course of their careers. It’s when those very different ways of thinking come together, diversity of thought, that teams are able to reach their true potential.

Aubrey Blanche (via Jamey Austin see reference below)

The quote above is backed up by an study by Associate (at the time) Professor Leanne Cutcher from the University of Sydney Business School who found that in the most innovative companies, age did not play a part in their innovative success (see the fourth reference below).

 In any case, we know that in Australia we don’t care much about research and innovation (See reference 1 and 2 below) compared to the rest of the world – so why the obsession with youth here? If we assume that young peeps are the only ones that can create new ideas but in fact we aren’t that interested in creating new ideas, what’s the business rationale for the obsession with youth? One reason might that younger people are a marketing target of newer companies focused on digital+social commerce, but what about the youth obsession in the relatively underfunded (here in Australia) and ignored startup and entrepreneurial scene?

My suspicion (which is not a novel proposition) is firstly, that the prevalence of young people in startups is because they are willing to work longer and under much more onerous conditions, for much less money, than older people are willing to do. Many people in the startup scene seem to celebrate this oppression of the young. The business rationale is “I can work this person into a coma for rather nebulous returns”. This leads to secondly, the marketing rationale : “Only youth can innovate”. Perhaps this marketing message has spread throughout the business world to become “Young good, old bad”, especially when it comes to digital innovation.

Needless to say this is not something we should condone either, the intense suffering of people just starting out their careers, who have been taken advantage of because they still hold to a positive ideals of improving the world, and haven’t developed self defence mechanism to counter opportunistic overseers. This is another form of ageism.

I’m going to make a what shouldn’t be a provocative suggestion, that no matter how old, which language you speak (correct I’m not an adherent of Whorfianism), which culture you are from, or what your DNA makeup is, that as Homo Sapiens you can learn to innovate if you learn the appropriate concepts, practice the skills and are given the right incentives.

What do you think?

If you are interested in discussing this further, or you are interested in my innovation programs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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