What should we do with all these gray-haired baby boomers? Do the brilliant and bold youngsters who seem to dominate the world of creativity and innovation still have a place for us? Texting is the new phone call, Venmo has replaced cash, and email messages suffice for letters. While these tools may be intuitive for some generations, they seem alien for some of us.
It may be easy to spot us baby boomers (BB), born between 1946-1964, who are now between 55-73 years old. We are cajoled for our outdated 40-hour work week, flip-phones, or the folded backup checks in our wallet. Even worse, a landmark paper from 1984 stated that when the average age of BB reaches 50 years, the burden of this old population will drag the U.S. down, and our country will no longer be a “locus of outstanding achievement.” (Simonton, Genius, Creativity and Leadership). By 2030, the average age in the U.S. will rise from 37 to 39. Even worse, we refuse to retire. If this BB population of risk-adverse entrepreneurs with calcified habits and outdated skills has created a population lacking in creative potential, how will we continue to grow and create wealth?
Thankfully, abundant research now disputes the entrenched stereotypes about aging and declining creativity. Studies do show that productivity and the sheer quantity of work produced does diminish with age-related factors, such as declining physical health, parental responsibilities, and more administrative duties. Data also shows that the aging brain is more capable of creativity and innovation than its younger counterpart.
Psychologists and neurophysiologists specializing in the cognition of aging have identified two remarkable, co-existing components that allow for this unprecedented creativity. These two components are: 1) long-term memories and experiences and 2) the ability to rapidly connect far-ranging associations. Imaging studies have shown that older brains are more distractible and disinhibited than younger brains, a trait that is directly linked to creativity. Furthermore, members of the elderly, distractible group could solve complex problems more rapidly than younger participants with focused attention.
Knowledge that highly creative individuals can hold disparate information in their minds at the same time is not new information; however, the finding that this ability naturally increases with age is new. Research from UCLA’s Center on Aging has identified several neuro-circuitry factors in the aging brain that correlate with increased identification of underlying patterns in a bigger picture. While younger people may have better short-term memories, older people have a greater repertoire of experiences and can quickly make broader connections.
The design legend Steve Jobs, who introduced the Apple iPhone when he was 52, expressed this same idea when he stated that, “Many people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. Without enough dots to connect, they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective of the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
The research findings that correlate aging with innovation are being reflected in statistics on successful technology ventures. According to 2018 data published in the Harvard Business Review, the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people older than 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20-34. The average founder of a high-tech startup is not a precocious graduate student but a mature 40-plus-year-old engineer with a family.
What is the secret to longevity? Stay alive.
What is the secret to innovation? Ask the baby boomers.
They will tell you to stay physically active, challenge your assumptions, tolerate ambiguity, seek experiences that are outside your “comfort zone,” and, if you are their child, to please answer their phone calls.