When my mother turned forty, we threw her a tongue-in-cheek funeral-themed surprise party, festooning the living room with paper tombstones engraved with Rest in Peace. That party theme is now a laughable conceit — forty then was older than forty now. Almost. In today’s world, there is still a bias against older people — employers in particular often think (in their mind) what Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary is fond of saying to entrepreneurs he doesn’t like, “You are dead to me.” If we’re being honest, we probably agree with O’Leary. Who of us hasn’t said, “I’m looking for someone young and hungry.” The implication is clear: If you aren’t young, you have nothing to contribute.
According to famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, as we grow older, hunger for meaning animates us, making us more alive. His theory explains that each healthy human passes through eight stages of development from infancy to adulthood. The seventh stage of development typically takes places between the ages 40-64 and centers around generativity, a period not of stagnation, but of productivity and creativity, including a strong commitment to mentoring and shoring up the next generation. Individuals in this developmental stage are supremely motivated to generate value, not just for themselves, but for others, asking the question: What can I do to make my life really count?
There are loads of both anecdotal and empirical data to support this idea of accelerating creativity in our middle years. Take Cheryl Kellond, for example, one of forty women we recently profiled in 40 Women Over 40 to Watch. Kellond, 43, founded Bia Sport, a GPS sports watch that records time, current heart rate, sending the data straight to an online profile. It also comes with a panic button that gives women who work out alone peace of mind. With traditional sources of financing unavailable, Kellond raised her first round of capital ($408,000) on Kickstarter — the ultimate in creative financing. Then there’s Linda Avey, who at age 46 started breakout company 23 and Me, a direct-to-consumer company that gives people access to their genetic data. At age 53, Avey is on her second start-up, Curious, a tool that gives people tools to ask questions about their health through data aggregation and sharing.
Research suggests Kellond and Avey aren’t one-offs. “The average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. The vast majority — 75 percent — have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than 10 years when they create their startup,”says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures. Meanwhile, data from the Kauffman Foundation indicates the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34.
The over-40 crowd is also more likely to do work that matters not just for themselves, but also future generations. For example, Jacki Zehner, 47, the youngest woman to become a partner at Goldman Sachs, is pouring her post-forty life into philanthropy on behalf of women and girls as CEO of Women Moving Millions. Carol Fox, 69, has devoted her golden years to the China-U.S. Philanthropy project, teaching Chinese billionaires how to extend their circle of caring beyond family. While photojournalist Paola Gianturco, 73, igniting an activist grandmother movement, inspiring grandmothers across the world to become involved in education, health and human rights. In learning about these inspiring individuals, it’s easy to see why research indicates that a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have more innovation potential than a 25-year-old: innovators really do get better with age.
Just as larger businesses provide economic stability to society in the form of higher pay, better medical care, and retirement, experienced workers provide intellectual and emotional ballast in the workplace including innovation expertise. Think about it — disruptive innovation is about playing where no one wants to play (low-end), or has thought of playing (new market). As individuals move into Erikson’s seventh developmental stage, creating something new isn’t just a “nice thing to do” — it is a psychological imperative. The urge to create, to generate a life that counts impels people to innovate, even when it’s lonely and scary. Data notwithstanding, some of the companies among us will continue allow these individuals to fall into the arms of independent work, if we don’t give them the boot first. The smart companies — and my money is on you — will harness this hunger of the under served, ready-to-serve corp of talent, and upend the competition.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review