How Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft Miss Creative Talent

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There are pervasive myths that older people are stuck in their ways, lack creativity and dynamism and cannot cope with new technology. This is reflected in ageism in hiring. According to research firm Payscale, the median age of a worker at Facebook is 29; at Amazon it is 30, and at Microsoft 33. In 2007 at age 22 Mark Zuckerberg profoundly stated, ‘Younger people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?’

Little wonder then that Bloomberg reported that 150 of the USA largest tech firms were sued 226 times for age discrimination from 2008 to 2015. There were more suits for age bias than for racial or gender discrimination.

I was recently fortunate enough to see Woody Allen play clarinet with his band at one of his occasional gigs in New York. The actor, playwright, director, and musician is 80 years old. He has made over 40 films including one this year, Café Society. Allen has won four Academy Awards: three for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Director for Annie Hall which was named the funniest screenplay by the Writers Guild of America. He also won nine British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. He is dramatic proof that old people can be creative and dynamic.

Of course, some older people are complacent, stubborn and technology-averse – but so are some youngsters. There is little or no academic evidence that creative achievement declines with age. Some studies show that pure creativity shows a slow decline after the age of 30 but there is a compensation with wisdom gained from experience. Many great artists, writers, scientists and business people did great work in their advanced years. Consider these examples:

Steve Jobs was 52 when as CEO of Apple he launched the iPhone in 2007.

In 1961 at age 59 Ray Kroc bought a small restaurant chain from the McDonald brothers and over the next 14 years built it into a mighty empire.

Bill Gates at age 60 is highly active in leading his foundation fight malaria.

The Italian painter Titian created some of his greatest masterpieces in his 70s and 80s.

Michelangelo remained a brilliant sculptor, painter, and architect into his 80s.

Woody Allen continues to make films and play jazz clarinet at 80.

And older people seem to be getting smarter. The average age of Nobel prize winners has increased significantly.

According to a study reported in Nature  ‘comparing discoveries made before 1905 with after 1985, the average age at which physicists made their discoveries rose from 37 to 50. Chemists’ average age rose from 36 to 46 and that of medical scientists from 38 to 45.’

As regards Chess Masters, most gain their grand-master title in their 20s. The average age of the top 100 grand-masters is around 30 and there are many who are much older. The Russian, Viktor Korchnoi, remained one of the strongest players in the world into his 80s.  The current British chess champion, grand-master Michael Adams, is 44.

It is foolish (and illegal) for companies to discriminate against candidates on the basis of age. Ability, attitude, and suitability for the position count much more.

What could a 50-year-old Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Woody Allen do for Facebook?  Who knows?  They might improve creativity and usability.

They could lead the company into new markets and attract more users – including many smart senior citizens.