There is a common belief that people’s actions and attitudes stagnate as they get older, and thus they are less likely to contribute innovative ideas. Sayings such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” coupled with frequent news stories about young billionaire CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Larry Page and Instagram’s Kevin Systrom make it seem as though only the young can be true innovators.
But older generations are still working. For many people retirement has been pushed back thanks to the economy, and other older employees simply want to remain in the workforce. Young innovators are plentiful, but innovation is not limited to young minds.
Consider Harland Sanders, founder of the KFC fast food chain, who developed his original recipe for the chicken brand at 50 years old. At age 65, Sanders began franchising his chicken and continued doing so well into his 70s. KFC has since become one of the most well-known fast food restaurants, with locations across the globe.
Martin Cooper was 45 when he brought his idea to life and made the first call on the mobile phone, a device that would forever change the way people communicate. Walter Hunt was 53 when he created the safety pin in 1849. Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first of many Little House on the Prairie books when she was 65. Orville Redenbacher finalized the recipe and technique for his successful popcorn at 58.
Although most people don’t come up with revolutionary businesses or inventions like these, organizations can gain a lot from encouraging every age group to share and develop its thoughts and ideas.
Age is not the key driver to innovation. Rather, engagement in the task at hand plays a vital role in developing insightful ideas. When people of all ages are engaged and passionate about their work, they are more likely to exert discretionary effort and contribute to new and better business outcomes, which often results in innovation.
Further, older workers are especially driven by the opportunity to do what they do best in their jobs. They also have the advantage of experience. They have had more opportunities to try various projects and tasks, allowing them to provide insight on what projects they most enjoy and at which they are most adept. Leadership teams should work closely with older generations to understand their job preferences, and distribute work accordingly. Doing so will help this population remain engaged.
Leaders also should encourage older people to pursue career development. Offering opportunities to develop various skills at every age will help keep workers dedicated, and can encourage idea creation from the development opportunities. Employees will appreciate being encouraged to advance their knowledge.
Despite Zuckerberg, Page and the world’s other young billionaires, today’s organizations should attempt to “teach old dogs new tricks” by engaging older employees and encouraging them to contribute. Age should never be considered an obstacle to innovation. Every individual has the opportunity to contribute a revolutionary idea. Passion and engagement are what truly matter.
Melissa Herrett is an associate marketing project manager at HR Solutions International Inc., a human capital consulting firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.