Startups worship the young. But research shows people are most innovative when they’re older

No country for old men.
No country for old men.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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While Silicon Valley had peddled the image of the 20-something, sweatshirt-wearing, college-dropout genius as the model for creativity in the 21st century, research shows that it is, in fact, older people who are more creative and productive.

For example, a 2016 study (pdf) by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation that looked at the demographics of over 900 individuals who have made high-value meaningful, marketable contributions to technology-heavy industries in the US.

The study found that the overall median age of innovators was 47 years old. Only 5.8% of the sample—which ranged in age from 18 to 80—was 30 years or younger, and innovation peaked between the ages of 46 and 50. The rate of innovation continues to be very high until the age of 55 and declined sharply after 65, the median expected retirement age in the US.

Particularly in the life sciences, material sciences, and information-technology fields, individuals who filed patents tended to be in the latter half of their careers.

These findings were consistent with a 2009 study (pdf) by John Walsh at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Sadao Nagaoka at the Hitotsubashi University in Japan, which analyzed a sample of 1,900 inventors in the US and found that the average age for American inventors is 47. Over 20% of inventors were in their fifties and more than 10% were 60 or older.

Only 5% of all the inventors surveyed had applied for a patent before the age of 25. In fact, in both the US and Japan, older inventors produced higher value patents.

Even outside of technology-heavy industries, improvement in the level of education amongst older workers and delays in retirement means that older workers have seen a rise in their earnings.

According to research (pdf) carried out by Gary Burtless, a senior fellow who holds the John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead Chair in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, workers between 60 and 74 now earn more than those between 25 and 59. In 2011, the hourly pay premium for older men was 22%, while for older women it was 10%.

Several of these studies were recently featured in The New York Times (paywall), where a writer argued that rather than be hampered by age, many inventors do their best work at later stages in their careers. She highlighted the case of John Goodenough, the nonagenarian inventor of the most important component of every lithium-ion battery that is itself a part of nearly every portable electronic device.

Thirty-five years after his game-changing invention, the world needed a super-battery that could make electric cars sustainable. “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in,” he told Quartz in 2015. “I’m only 92. I still have time to go.”

Now, at 94, Goodenough claims he has a new solution that could allow electric cars to compete with conventional vehicles on price.