There is a widespread trend in the digital and social media industries (yes there are now multiple industries spawned by these technologies) of increasing emphasis on youth. As the Zuckerberg’s of the world have risen to power, executives at venture capital firms have begun to believe that innovation belongs to the young. And as the investment goes, so does the industry. Zuckerberg himself has been quoted as bluntly stating, “Young people are just smarter.” Of course, that was before he turned 30 and was lambasted by Fast Company as being an “old loser“.
Now there is evidence from Harvard Business Review – one of the last bastions of the “old people rule” camp, that young people are indeed more innovative. But this begs the question… Does everyone have to be an innovator? HBR reports that inventive capacity peaks around age 30 while Nobel Prize winners cluster in their mid-40s and financial decision-making is optimized at age 53. Do we actually need Chief Executives to be inventors? Or is there value in the balancing effect of “wisdom” on the youthful optimism of “innovation”?
If you follow the logic of Silicon Valley, the answer is that CEOs must be innovative or the industry will pass them and their companies by. However, the logic of Silicon Valley is built around a model in which 3 out of 4 companies fail. Even when they succeed, the enormous bets are placed not to chase that 25% of companies that succeed, but the much smaller percentage of companies that really strike it big, where 20-something founders do seem to be overrepresented. What other industry can we look to where enormous bets are placed in the hopes that a small number of them succeed? Banking is one that certainly comes to mind. However, MySpace, Friendster, Digg, and many other failed darlings of the social media industry have proven that while companies based in New York may be too big to fail, those in California are certainly not.
So why then is Silicon Valley one of the fastest growing Botox markets in the U.S.? Much of it has to do with the economics and culture of entrepreneurial laziness that have been ushered in by Millennial founders. At SXSW several years ago there was much discussion of how tech companies today would rather by bought by Google than become Google themselves. This is good news for venture capitalists who want their big, early exits. But what about the rest of us who are planning or working to build companies of value, that have a place in the world?
Thankfully, there are important parts of the brain and cognitive ability that actually increase with age. Things like problem-solving, bilateral thinking (right and left sides of the brain), prioritization, seeing the bigger picture, and the wisdom associated with less dependency on dopamine and other “feel good” hormones all make executives in their 40s, 50s, and 60s valuable components of a successful leadership team. Rather than expecting every executive to be an inventor or innovator, successful companies that are building for the long haul take advantage of everyone’s strengths. The result is a healthy balance similar to how the American experiment was first designed – with checks and balances to prevent one leader from moving too fast, or another from moving to slowly.
So, while the recent flood of media attention on the power of young executives is certainly encouraging to us Millennials and Generation-Z types, let’s not go too far in proclaiming that anyone who actually remembers the Cold War be set to the task of mopping the floors. It’s a healthy balance of leaders at every age which makes the most powerful combination.
Author’s note: I’m 31, dude.