The technology industry is very much associated with young people. Corporate wunderkinds Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were quite young when they were working in the iconic garage where Apple was started and greeting Facebook investors in a hoodie. Many engaged in the tech industry are young, having grown up surrounded by technology.
Many tech people exhibit a very strong personal bias preference towards youth, and equating it with intelligence and talent. Zuckerberg, after all, told an audience at Stanford University 10 years ago that young people were much smarter than older people.
However, there is definitely a place in the tech world for older people. Age itself is not a determinant of starting a successful business, and older managers can provide mentorship that younger tech people may require to achieve their full potential.
Many Founders Are Older, Not Younger
Despite the strength of the “young founder” story and undeniable examples, many tech company founders are not young. The Washington Post notes that, in a study of technology companies that moved from an inception in a small locale, like a garage, to revenue of $1 million per year, the average age of the founders was 39.
Not only that but, of the founder cohort in this study, twice as many were over 50 years old as were under 25. Twice as many were over 60 as under 20.
A related study of founders showed that the average age at starting a company was 50 and that a substantial number were over 60.
But these are not the only studies of the age of founders in technology news. Yet another one tracked the average age in the period from 1996 through 2013. More businesses were started by people who were in the 55-64 year-old cohort than by 20- or 30-somethings.
Even the proposition that “younger is better because innovative work is done by the young” stands on shaky ground. In fact, 14% of Nobel prize winners did their most significant work when they were over 50. That’s twice as many as those who did it when they were under 26.
What Older People Can Bring
Not only are founders often middle-aged or older, but there is a considerable place for older employees in the general tech workforce.
Airbnb, for example, called on the expertise of hotelier Chip Conley after nearly a quarter century in the hospitality business. In the Harvard Business Review, Conley observed that he felt older than most of the employees. Crucially, though, he turned his relative disorientation into a learning and teaching opportunity.
He believes that younger managers especially can benefit from the emotional intelligence older managers have developed over the years. A business strategy needs a combination of technological intelligence plus emotional intelligence. Younger workers focused on tech may need seasoning and advice on the latter.
He notes that older workers must play two roles. They are often hired to mentor and have the expertise to perform that role. But they must also conceptualize themselves as interns, learning new material and new situations.
If they can do that, older workers can be a huge benefit to technology companies, their business strategy, and their competitive stature.