Boomers take heart: innovation is ageless

Feeling old and over the hill? Don’t. Because as Howard Tullman, executive director of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at the Illinois Institute of Technology writes, there’s a misconception out there that breakthrough products or services are always created by smart young brains. But the evidence shows otherwise.

Every generation has its own slang and everyone over the age of 40 professes not to understand what “the kids” are saying, singing, or emoji-ing.

This isn’t exactly new inter-generational news. But it is part of a pervasive belief that is foisted upon us regularly and religiously by the mass media and, even more so, by lazy marketers. They are quick to use age cohorts as speedy and simplistic guides to extract all sorts of meaning and to help them explain (or perhaps, more honestly, attempt to justify) behaviors which, in truth, are far more complicated and more broadly distributed than they would prefer to admit or perhaps actually even understand. They seize on age as a shorthand, much like a drunk grabs a lamppost— not so much for illumination as for support.

Howard Tullman

They tell us that we act consistently and predictably in well-defined clusters and age-inflected groups; that our beliefs, desires, and ultimately our own actions are inexorably dictated by chronological metrics; and thus demographics enforced by custom, tradition, and peer pressures are the primary be-all and end-all keys to discovering and manipulating our behaviors.

A parallel and probably more unfortunate belief— and one that’s especially troublesome to old guys like me— is that problem-solving abilities, the creation of novel solutions, and pure inventive powers belong to the young. This capability is known as fluid intelligence.

Conversely, we’re told that our vision, flexibility, and perceptions— basically our ability to see outside and beyond the boxes that we each build around ourselves— harden along with our arteries and become far less agile and flexible as we age. The theory is that to keep moving forward as we grow older, we come to rely on a different and distinct set of skills based on our accumulated experience and iterative abilities. We thus focus more on incremental innovations and improvements rather than inspirational and game-changing moonshots. Not, just to be clear, that there’s really anything wrong with that approach.

This more mature and deliberative capability is sometimes described as crystallized intelligence and relies on accumulated knowledge, pattern recognition, and strategies of successive approximation rather than waiting for things to be perfect. Of course these are the talents and the basic tools of every seasoned entrepreneur.

But every day we see new entrepreneurs, change agents, and disruptive innovators of all ages enter the fray. In fact, the latest research suggests that the most successful business builders launch their ventures in their mid-30s or even later and not while they’re still wet behind the ears.

Consumer examples inconsistent with the pat assumptions about age are everywhere. We hear that streaming is a new and youth-oriented behavior, but the most rapid and substantial growth in this type of media consumption is among viewers aged 50 to 59. When you see Jeffrey Katzenberg (68) and Meg Whitman (63) talk excitedly about Quibi, their new startup, which reimagines TV, you start to understand that all the old rules and stale perceptions have been tossed out with the trash.

Cameo, one of the hottest and fastest-growing startups in Chicago, just raised $50 million to expand its business of providing personalized selfie shout-outs from tens of thousands of minor celebs, jocks, and YouTube influencers to consumers worldwide. You’d think the core audience for the almost 400,000 of these short, raw, and gimmicky videos that have been created to date would be social media obsessed kids (using their folks’ credit cards or Apple Pay) and you’d be dead wrong. The core audience for Cameo is women 24 to 35 years old, 85% of the requests are gifts for others, and more than a third of the requests already come from abroad.

And, of course, while the Millies (18-to-34) are certainly spending lots of time online, it’s still the Gen X grown-ups (35-to-54) and Boomers (55-to-74) with the deeper pockets who are by far the largest two e-commerce purchasing populations as of now.

And frankly, while age no longer means very much in terms of what we as individuals buy, sell, and consume, it means even less when you start talking about important and impactful innovations. The premise that the only real and dramatic changes— in medicine for example— come as a result of some Eureka! moment in a lab manned by researchers in their 30s along with their graduate student assistants doesn’t comport with the facts on the ground.

One of the most compelling examples often cited by Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, the chief medical officer at OptumLabs, relates to the improvement between 1970 and 1995 in the long-term survival rates of children with leukemia, which improved from under 20-percent to almost 80-percent during that timespan. The increase was impressive not only because it saved thousands of kids’ lives— the ultimate goal— but equally because of the very basic methodology that brought about such substantial improvements in outcomes.

There hadn’t been any new chemotherapy drug or any material advance in the efficacy of the existing primary drugs during this period and yet there was a huge reduction in pediatric mortality basically because, through repeated programs of iterative trial and error, the doctors improved the use, consistent application, protocols, and effectiveness of the existing drugs. They eventually learned what worked best.

There was no new invention at work here; simply innovation achieved through successive approximation and repeated attempts to keep getting a little bit better all the time. And just to be clear, these weren’t newbie doctors. They were clinicians of every age and stripe who came together to share information, exchange their practical experiences, and document the outcomes of hundreds of trials.

If anything, this is a clear example, not of youthful and inspired invention, but of hard-core applications of the very traditional scientific methods which have been around just short of forever, and which are at the very heart of successful innovation.

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Howard is author and co-author of several books, including his newest, “You Can’t Win a Race With Your Mouth: And 299 Other Expert Tips from a Lifelong Entrepreneur.”

1 Comment

  1. Thank you. An excellent article, thought-provoking and fresh. A reminder that, while someone is trying to invent a car that doesn’t need tires, the wheel and tire itself has undergone countless innovative iterations from steel-banded spoked wagon wheels to hard rubber tires to tubed to tubeless, now available flat-proof honeycomb airless tires. Both forks of development are essential, and the “AHA” moment can come from either fork and cross over to the other, and can come from any member of the team. There is no delineator to describe “innovator”, can be anyone, anywhere, team or individual.

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