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Challenging assumptions about age and innovation

A new study from Ohio University provides inspiration for using your creativity whatever stage you are at.

skyskrapers from below

When I studied social media last year, one of the recurrent themes in my discussion group was how the curating of our feeds impacts on our understanding and discussion across various groups in society. If we spend most of our time interacting with those who share our interests, beliefs and background what impact does that have on our understanding of others?

As employees remain in the workforce longer and change positions more frequently, understanding the wealth of skills and experience that each generation brings is more and more important.

One of the common myths seems to be that innovation in the workplace can be predicted by age. Our image of startups run by youthful entrepreneurs can lead us to perceive that innovation belongs only to the young. This assumption however is not based on fact.

One study released in April this year, from Ohio State University looked at the achievements of recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics over the course of their career with some surprising results. The authors believe that the results they found can be applied to creativity and innovation more generally.

Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about

Bruce Weinberg as cited in Grabmeier 2019

Different types of innovation tend to emerge at key life stages. Earlier research in the arts and natural sciences has already identified that there are two polar types of innovators, those individuals who work deductively and those who work inductively. (Weinberg & Galenson, 2019).

The study found that the early peak of innovation for laureates was in their mid-20’s, with another later peak for those in their mid 50’s

Conceptual Innovators – the early peak

The conceptual economists covered in the study posed precise problems and solved them deductively. Their innovations tended to occur early on in their careers and were often direct responses to the existing body of work in their field. ( Weinberg & Galenson)

Entrepreneurship is increasing and the fourth industrial revolution has begun. Our ability to nurture young innovators towards practical solutions may be key to meeting the challenges ahead.

Experimental Innovators – the later peak

In direct contrast “Experimental innovators work inductively. Their innovations derive from knowledge accumulated with experience. ” ( Weinberg & Galenson) They tend to pose broader questions and solve these by accumulating evidence which provides a basis for new generalisations.

The more evidence they can analyze, the more powerful their generalizations, so the most important experimental innovations are often the product of long periods of research.

( Weinberg & Galenson )

Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution 1858, aged 49, after two decades of scientific research.

In the US successful entrepreneurs are generally middle aged not young.

The mean founder age for the 1 in 1,000 fastest growing new ventures is 45.0.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2018

These findings apply across sectors including entrepreneurial hubs, high-technology and successful firm exits. Previous experience in a specific industry is a strong predictor of success.

The current rate of technological change requires innovators who can apply and adapt this technology to produce real word solutions. Research suggests that this innovation will come from across the generations.

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