The Old Dogs Have the Best New Tricks: The Best Innovators Aren’t the Youngest

I may be shooting myself in the foot here by spreading this around, but word has it that the best innovators aren’t Millennials.

Many companies have been trying to create a younger work force, gently (or not so gently) encouraging older employees to retire and leave. The belief is that innovation comes from the newbies, especially when it comes to computers, or anything having to do with technology in general. However, there’s proof that the top innovators are actually in the “older” crowd. The New York Times published an article the other day, “Why Innovators Get Better with Age” citing the the average age of successful innovators (Nobel Peace Prize Winners, Poet Laureates, etc) is 38 and that, on average, someone has more innovation potential at 65 than at 25.

The reason for this is probably a matter of experience. While young people may have inspiration, they usually don’t have the experience, the resources, or the leadership to spearhead an innovative project. On the other hand, an employee who has been with an agency for several years and has general experience in the field will be more likely to come up with a ground-breaking idea and be able to put the idea into motion.

That said, this doesn’t mean that younger employees do not have any innovative potential. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Some of the most influential innovators of the last 50 years have been young: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. And sometimes, older leaders can get too excited over new technology and run away with it. For example, a head administrator at a large county hospital on Long Island, NY recently suggested to the other administrators that they should replace e-mail entirely with social media because it was supposedly the way trends in communication were going. This of course was quickly shot down by the flabbergasted CIO.

If anything, the combination of Millennials, Baby Boomers and everything in between will lead to the greatest innovation, especially with things like social media. The lack of experience in younger employees can lead to thinking outside of the box, while the experiences of older employees will help guide new projects to fill an existing need in new and profound ways.

How can Millennials, Gen Xer’s, Y2Ks and Baby Boomers (etc) work together?

How do you think agencies can nurture innovative collaboration with younger and older employees?

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David B. Grinberg

I concur with Megan — very well put, Kate.

Just a small footnote that another reason why many employers prefer younger workers is because their salaries and benefits (especially healthcare costs) are much less than that of older workers. This also plays into the age-old problem of age discrimination at work.

Now let’s go innovate…

Henry Brown

Suspect there might not be much difference in actual inovation between generations but what is different, IMO, is the ability to apply the inovation within the organization. Where the exceptions come to the front is where the majority of the organization are of a single generation (Apple, Facebook, MS) during the startup days especially

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Thanks for sharing this article! As a Boomer, I sometimes find myself being more creative and innovative than some of our youngest employees, who often seem like they are more interested in not rocking the boat. I think that the key here is to harness diversity in innovation teams. What’s missing in many government agencies is that there is no process or incentives for innovating. In fact, most organizations are more interested in compliance and discouraging creativity. So, it really doesn’t matter whether your are old or young. We often reserve any innovation or creativity for our consultants/contractors.

Debra Brown

I have been saying this all along. Yes I do respect our young people’s talents and thoughts when at the same time I feel as though they do not do the same for us “old dogs”. What they don’t realize is the fact that because of our historical knowledge and hard work, it allows them to be able to do the things they do. Instead of coming into the game changing the rules off the bat they really need to observe, communicate and calm down to find out what is really going on in the game. With the historical knowledge and new thoughts we might be able to accomplish many things in this world.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Debra: You echo the first chapter of Red Thread Thinking. According to the author, older folks have an edge on innovation because they have a better developed sense of empathy. Again, this is a broad generalization and I have met many younger people with a great sense of empathy and older folks who could use a booster shot of empathy.

The more important point to remember is that innovation occurs at all ages and it is not an innate trait. Rather, everyone can develop their ability to innovate through self-reflection, study, and play.

Daniel Bevarly

I’m proud to be a part of the “Gov2(dot)Old” generation. Especially in government, acquired knowledge, experience and expertise in the era before Internet is a critical resource to getting it right today in a “digital” world of governance and public administration.

Erin Gee

I feel like Millennials get pigeon-holed into being the “social media” people. Being a Millennial doesn’t mean that you are an effective social media user and know which tools are useful for what (and conversely, being a Gen X’er doesn’t mean you don’t know). This may end up being detrimental to the perception of not only social media as an effective tool, but also to the reputation of these Millennials (who are unable to deliver).

I have no doubt that older folks are better innovators than younger – not only do they have more experience, but they also don’t try to spur innovation when it’s unnecessary. It’s important to foster an environment that facilitates knowledge transfer, mentoring, and even reverse-mentoring. This will break down silos and hierarchy.


More awareness about the value of the gov.old(er) generation is needed right now. On January 1, 2011, the oldest Baby Boomers in America turned 65. Every day for the next 19 years, about 10,000 more will cross that threshold. By 2030, when all Baby Boomers will have turned 65, fully 18% of the nation’s population will be at least that age, according to Pew Research Center population projections. Today, just 13% of Americans are ages 65 and older.