Fostering Workplace Innovation, Part 2

By Frank Kenna

Last week I wrote about how schools need to change the way they teach, that in the age of Google, rote memorization and similar techniques are obsolete. 

This week, still focusing on innovation, I’ll take a look at the other end of the age spectrum.  I’ll start with a March 30, 2013, article from The New York Times by Tom Agan titled, “Why Innovators Get Better With Age.” Agan cites research from Durham University in England that says the average age of inventors (who eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize) is 38. But that’s the age when they make the breakthrough.  The time between innovation and when it is recognized and acted upon is 20 years, putting the average age of the recipient at 58. 

But even if the incubation time at a company, assuming a less than Nobel-worthy idea, is 10 years, that still puts the age at around 50.  And separate research from Northwestern University found that 55-year-olds and even 65-year-olds have significantly more innovation potential than 25-year-olds. 

This sounds like pretty good news to me seeing I’m firmly in the Nobel-recipient age bracket.  But it’s not that great news for American business since demographics are skewing older. The U.S. Labor Department reported that the employment-to-population ratio, which measures the proportion of the adult population with jobs, was 58.5% in March.  It was almost 63% as recently as 2007.  The recession is partly to blame, but a big part is the aging population.  We are actually seeing our most innovative employees retiring at an increasing rate. 

What to do?  Agan suggests that we encourage the best performers to stay put, giving them the years or decades they need.  And we managers need to think about changing our conversations from severance packages to retention bonuses for older workers.  Managers often want to manage the average employee age down, but should consider managing it up instead. 

Frank Kenna III
April 9, 2013

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