Jobs and the Future of Work

Why it’s important to tackle ageism in start-ups

Yoni Dayan
Analyst, Wikistrat
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According to the notion of “prime of life” (“fleur de l’âge” in French), individuals peak before 35 and go downhill in terms of creative output and relevance afterwards. It’s a commonly held belief that most of the formative work of Nobel Prize winners happened before 30, that many major artworks were created by “youngsters” and wunderkind, and that a significant number of start-up co-founders are in their twenties. We live in an information age where the combination of easily accessible resources and education, such as MOOCs, DIY trends and maker labs, and the exponential progress of technologies like 3D-printing, will multiply the number of teens inventing services and products which disrupt established players.

This pattern of youthful success is reinforced by various frameworks put in place by the public and private sectors, and competitions and prizes highlighting their accomplishments. This can be seen as the “sweet vengeance” of youth over a gerontocratic history which has privileged older rulers.


Why ageism is a trap that leads to missed opportunities

Kill-joys may say that this is a cathartic way to reflect on my own fear of time passing. In fact, what’s at stake is huge missed opportunities. Entrepreneurship, gaming and learning are typically viewed as domains exclusively for young people. Both young and old fall into the same trap by creating a “zeitgeist of the fresh”, an environment where older folks are either discarded or feel they can’t take part. Anecdotes abound to back this up. For instance, I have heard researchers from various institutions moaning about the average age of people in their labs (“how can we make breakthroughs with these geriatrics?”). Or entrepreneurs mocking the over-40’s at their events (“they are too old to get what’s happening”).

Countless people over 40 are abandoning their passions, their intent to switch careers or start businesses, as tech media and social networks bombard them with success stories of people in their 20s. Perhaps most damaging is the rampant entrepreneurial belief that “internet entrepreneurs are like pro basketball players — they peak at 25, [and] by 30 they’re usually done” (as one VC told Techcrunch). Prizes for middle-aged people and seniors who launch businesses are scarce as well.

This problem has been described by Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe as “generational islands”. He notes that sociologists have identified a trend in US life that is a cause for concern: age segregation. “Senior citizens live in nursing homes where they mainly see other very old people. Adolescents, who in a previous era might have spent significant time around adults while farming, apprenticing, or helping with the family business, spend their after-school hours on social media, talking mostly to one another. It is possible, today, for a middle-aged office worker to go to sleep on a Friday having interacted all week with not one person more than a decade older or younger.”

It’s never too late!

Despite abundant evidence for ageism, this piece from Entrepreneur, countless studies, and simple personal observations prove that one is never too old to learn, create, and bring real value to any project. And it’s not only about having more experience. Above all, it’s about proposing new perspectives, mindsets, and ways to think and to act.

The reality is that the role of older entrepreneurs is especially significant, as Adeo Rossi from the Founder Institute wrote in a recent article on TechCrunch:

Age is only one factor among many to predict the success of entrepreneurs, and anybody at any age can break any molds put forward by “experts.” We have romanticized the idea of a young founder because, well, it’s a great story, but these stories are not the norm. In the end, classic biases of gender, race, and age need to be discarded for a real science of success.

Founder Institute studies have shown that the average age of the applicants is 34.4 years. “Older individuals have generally completed more complex projects  –  from buying a house to raising a family. In addition, older people have developed greater vocational skills than their younger counterparts in many, but not all, cases. We theorize that the combination of successful project completion skills with real world experience helps older entrepreneurs identify and address more realistic business opportunities.”

Even more strikingly, the average age of entrepreneurs is increasing every year. This article from Idealog assesses how most of the famous accelerators’ candidates went up from their mid-twenties to their early or even mid-thirties.

We can see a similar trend in science. Contrary to the common belief about the average age of Nobel laureates, this thorough study shows that the average age of recipients has increased by a decade in the past century, and is now 48. This is due to several factors, such as the length of studies required to achieve these goals and ever-increasing human life expectancy.

Going beyond “yes, geezers still pack a punch”

Building bridges between generational islands, facilitating interaction between people of different ages, can make these fields far more interesting

For example, in the MOOCs I took or assisted in teaching, I’ve observed how people over 40 had a tremendous positive impact in terms of imagination, contributions and social dynamics in the group they were a part of, either as leaders or members. In fact, “seniors” are often more engaged and interactive as students. In the renowned “Technology Entrepreneurship” MOOC in NovoEd, the over 40’s tended to dominate the start-up projects which were selected to pitch to real investors. I was part of a MITx Bootcamp for entrepreneurship education where a team with the highest average age won, thanks in part to the inter-generational composition of that team.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and e.sports aren’t the preserve of youngsters, either, especially as the average age of gamers is 35 and rising as Generation Nintendo grows older.

In Wikistrat, the crowd-sourced consultancy company where I’m a supervisor and analyst, I’ve seen first-hand the value of collaboration across generations. According to Alina Shkolnikov, head of business development intelligence: “We believe there is wisdom in the diverse, inter-generational, multidisciplinary, international, expert crowd – wisdom that is essential for dealing with an increasingly complex world. “

Manifesto for inter-generational collaboration

Programs do exist to promote intergenerational collaboration. However, they are often charitable in intent, allowing students to gain credits for good deeds. This de facto installs an imbalance in the relation between those deemed to be ‘players’ in society and those who are not.

Jennifer Tu, a Harvard student whom I met at the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires in Paris who is involved in this area, has summarized the problem beautifully:

Ultimately, one should strive for “trans-directional” relationships, whereby people can reach profound empathy when seeing the young in the old and the old in the young. For instance, when I look into the eyes of a 96-year-old woman during our weekly visits together, I see the shimmering vivacity of a twenty-year-old like me. Perhaps, when she looks into mine, she can see the glowing wisdom and grace of a nonagenarian, like her.

Indeed, we need to evolve from an antipyretic approach in which borderline “new age” or wishy-washy initiatives only superficially relieve mid-career and elderly people’s feelings of irrelevance, to an approach that properly includes them in the current revolution conceptualized as the “digital age” or “exponential societies”. As automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological groundswells have disrupted the concept of a “job” in the 21st Century, we are shifting toward nomadic and freelance working where people “trade” their knowledge and skills for a given amount of time on specific projects. Combined with increased life expectancy and hundreds of millions of people above 50 either unemployed or retired (as an illustration, France’s rate has boomed recently), this workforce has huge untapped productive and creative potential and craves to be useful, to leverage their skills and experiences outside low-wage part time jobs. We see this in the rising participation of older adults in MOOCs, for instance.

The proliferation of collaboration tools and social platforms are the perfect context for mid-career professionals to get new knowledge and flexibly contribute to projects. These information-enabled activities don’t require intense and day-long mental or physical efforts, making them compatible with supposedly diminished seniors and elders.

The case for this paradigm shift becomes stronger when we consider the global pension crisis, the fact that most OECD countries have fewer persons of working age to support retired people.

In the absence of a cure for Alzheimers and other forms of dementia, we are looking at an average increase of 40% in countries like the USA of people suffering from these diseases. Having mentally stimulating activities and social engagement instead of watching TV alone, has been proved to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Imagine how different things might look in a truly inter-generational society?

It has been widely recognized and studied that interdisciplinarity, via the “novel combination of ideas from multiple disciplines has a high probability of generating “breakthrough” insights, which in turn will lead to significant discoveries and innovations.” Why not apply the same logic to generations? Most Millennials and the ensuing generations X, Y and Z, have their own cultural touchstones (we are borderline forced by our Facebook and Twitter feeds to watch Game of Thrones for instance), their way of thinking and functioning (sharing rather than owning, culture of immediacy and different attention span). Same with older people. Combining the two is bound to spark interesting results.

How to create a generational Pangaea

– In education: foster exchanges between people of different age categories during studies. Better profiling and cohorting features in learning management systems could ensure an enhanced demographic repartition in MOOCs, especially when they are team-based. For K-12 real classes, it could take the shape of an increased involvement of the community in the programs (a noticeable trend in the Google Moonshot Education Summit). For higher-ed, age limits on application should be removed, and there should be more interaction with administrations/companies such as tours, qualitative internships, immersing teams of middle to late career managers and executives within those younger environments with a framework and goals to foster constructive trans-generational work. More dedicated programs like those from the Intergenerational Center from Temple University are needed.

– In the corporate world: develop more inter-generational management practices, breaking the traditional pattern of over 40’s and 50’s in senior management positions and younger people in entry-level roles or leading internal “start-ups” and “centers for the edge”. Reverse mentoring, consisting of millennial employees shadowing leadership positions, can “help close the generational and technological gaps and accelerate the senior learning curve in management”. We could even consider a reverse “reverse mentoring”, where older employees would contribute to new and “young” corporate initiatives in a more systematic fashion.

– In society: pursue more inter-generational programs going beyond easing our conscience towards the old, like BridgeTogether.

– In economy: developing a new metric to gauge the level of inter-generational activity of the economy, which will facilitate setting up policies and make populations more conscious of this factor.

– In entrepreneurship and media: highlight achievements, such as career switches, start-up creations, and artistic productions, of middle-aged and senior populations, inspiring individuals to understand that it’s “never too late.” Each documenting effort can constitute millions of “pats on the back” that will push people above 40 to believe that they can learn and create, despite our current “start-up societies” doxa. This would unleash incomparable potential in business and other domains.

In other words, avoid the pitfall of discarding this huge, multi-faceted potential from people older than you. In this day and age, where multi-disciplinary, cross-pollinated, intercultural, and gender-equal dynamics are finally accepted and gaining steam, we urgently need a push for “trans-generational” approaches. There is much to be gained from building bridges between generational islands and harnessing the energies emanating from proper, equal-term collaboration between individuals of different ages.

Author: Yoni Dayan is a multidisciplinary entrepreneur, with a focus on the science of collaboration and learning communities. He is also an analyst at Wikistrat and a teaching assistant at Stanford’s NovoEd. You can find him here on Twitter 

Image: A man sits in front of a computer at the Cherish-Yearn care center in Shanghai September 14, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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