Why does youth innovation work?
The microscope, DNA and special relativity. What do these three discoveries and inventions have in common? They revolutionised science? Yes. They’ve benefited the lives of millions? Yes. They were pioneered by people under thirty? Yes.
The microscope allowed humans to look into the building blocks of the world around, the structure of materials and the nature of cells. The discovery of DNA pushed the frontiers of medical technology spawning the science of genetics. Special relativity has given rise to GPS, nuclear energy as well as being essential for the advancement of space travel.
Innovations led by young people, that changed the world.
Facebook, Theranos, Apple, Microsoft and Google. They are leading companies in their respective markets and exciting innovators pushing humanity and business forward. All founded by people under thirty and all-game changers in their markets. Facebook led the growth of social media, which in turn furthered the rapid growth of the internet. Theranos transformed the process of blood testing, saving millions of lives through the ease at which diseases could be detected. Apple revolutionised personal computers, mobile phones and pioneered the tablet industry. Microsoft brought personal computing to the masses through the development of Windows. ‘Google’ is now a word in the dictionary and is the central nexus for all human knowledge. These are some of the most innovative companies in the world, all started by people under thirty.
Why are young people able to innovate, create and change how things work? Young people, by definition, have less life and business experience so how can they be great innovators?
It’s often said that young people don’t have a fear of failure; a cynical rebuke may be “because they have nothing to loose”. This is usually true. Young people are less likely to have dependants, a mortgage or significant finances to lose investing. What about the innovations, which aren’t businesses such as scientific ventures? Why are young people adept at this even without experience which is, arguably, more important? It could be argued that, again, there is less risk as there is more time left to repair a damaged reputation, but this still doesn’t negate the issue of experience.
Young people are not tainted by mistakes or the ideas of those who came before.
Perhaps it is precisely a lack of experience which is causing this correlation. What is experience? It is knowledge received from first hand experience often learned from mistakes. Experience is also knowledge learned from other people’s mistakes and ideas. Experience learned from mistakes, whilst useful to deter repetition from mistakes, it can also act as a deterrent from trying new things. Experience learned from other people, or from qualifying in a profession is an obstacle to trying new and innovative processes or testing new ideas. Young people are not tainted by mistakes or the ideas of those who came before.
People in their 20s will have only recently finished formal education. School leavers, undergraduates or postgraduates, their education has only recently stopped or they may still be studying. However new ideas, research and learning are intrinsically eternal. This idea may not be applicable to academic and scientific innovation, but academic innovation can occur at any age; the learning never stops. Education and academia drive innovation; encourage new thinking and the decision to try new things.
Whilst in academia there may still be, at times, stifling bureaucracy and certain traditions and precedents to follow, not everyone is an innovator. Young people are still filled with a desire to learn and try new things. Indeed, soon after graduating or leaving an educational environment the knowledge gained is fresh and easy to access ensuring that it can be applied more fluidly.
Maturity is an increasing realisation of ones own vulnerability and the shredding of arrogance.
Confidence, a lack of fear, stepping out of the bubble impervious to harm, invulnerable to failure and invincible. The mind-set of many in their 20s and a mind set which is obviously quite wrong and has caused many a disaster. Yet to some extent, these are traits found in all young people and there are developmental psychology theories suggesting that maturity is an increasing realisation of ones own vulnerability and the shredding of arrogance. However these attributes, whilst easily leading to poor choices, can motivate people into action.
No fear of failure, no fear in believing that what some may call impossible is actually possible, is a powerful level of confidence which can almost make up for a lack of experience. ‘Fake it till you make it’, a self fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you’re going to succeed you’re more likely to succeed than if you believe you’re going to fail. This confidence may be from stepping out of the bubble of protection offered by schools, parents and universities and it’s more accentuated whilst still within the confines of such institutions, especially students. Starting a venture as a student is one of the best times to do so. Plenty of free and flexible time, University resources and no burning pressure to making money.
All of these attributes are rooted in the same idea, a lack of constraints; on ideas and ambition.
Innovation, start-up businesses and scientific discoveries are not purely in the sphere of the young; in fact the 20-year-old led start-up stereotype is a new phenomenon brought on by the dawn of the internet age. Great innovators of the past such as IBM, Wal-Mart and Ford, who all changed their respective industries, were led by men in their 40s. Even now many great businesses are founded by people well out of their 20s. So is youth innovation a new concept? I would postulate that innovative thinking in those under the age of thirty isn’t new. What is new is the rapid communication of ideas that is maintained by the internet and trendsetters who changed the perception of youth.
A famous youth innovator, Steve Jobs, who founded what may be the first trillion-dollar company, Apple, was fired primarily by inexperience. A decision which probably wasn’t in Apple’s best interests in the long run, nevertheless Steve Jobs changed the perception of what young people can do. Mark Zuckerberg who, in 2004, founded what some predictions see as the second trillion-dollar company, is seen to be qualified enough to run Facebook. The current perception allows for youth to demonstrate their ideas and build innovative companies.
How can this relate to companies? Innovative people come from all ages and all backgrounds; some of the greatest innovations have come from the young and some from the experienced. So, how can companies utilise this knowledge? Usually experienced people are in positions of autonomy, where they can implement their ideas to improve and develop and can be seen as innovators. Young people are often unable to express their ideas, new into companies, their voice can be unheard. Companies need to work to develop cultures and environments where graduate employees are taken more seriously and can spread and develop ideas together with their more senior colleagues.
The reasons why young people are such great innovators, are also the reasons that make young companies (irrespective of the founders ages) disruptive and innovative. No fear of failure, nothing to loose and no constraints are universal traits in almost all successful start-ups.
Tesco is a prime example of a game changer in the supermarket industry. At one point in time, 10p out of every pound spent in the UK was spent at Tesco. The Tesco Clubcard changed consumer-spending patterns and rewarded customers for their loyalty. Loyalty cards are now common place in the modern world, with even small single site shops and restaurants using them and Tesco has barely changed since the early 90s. With the recent troubles at Tesco, we can see a clear example of how wrong a company can go when it stops innovating.
The best companies are those that take inspiration from everywhere and when everyone is constantly innovating.