Can age trump youth?

This article was first published in Campaign magazine.

So now a 70-year-old man gets the biggest job in the world! What a perfect age to be president (or, in my case, the perfect age is 72). Of course, being president of Engine UK isn’t quite the same as being the president of the United States of America. But it does still make the point that it is possible that “senior citizens” – that awful euphemism – aren’t always destined for the scrap heap. But are creative pensioners of genuine value to a creative business? Won’t creativity decline with age? Yes and no.

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The scientific data shows that some creative types – such as lyrical poets and mathematicians – tend to have early creative peaks. Whereas others – among them historians and philosophers – are prone to later peaks and gradual, even negligible, declines. I haven’t found any scientific data on where admen fit in. But 72-year-old Sir John Hegarty seems to be as creative as ever and 71-year-old Sir Martin Sorrell shows no sign of acting his age. To stay creative and original in later life, it helps to be willing to do new things.

This doesn’t have to be learning Serbo-Croat or eating sea urchins. Hegarty has used some of his abundant creativity to set up an incubator innovator, The Garage. I set up The Ideas Foundation, getting disadvantaged young people into our industry. And many others in our industry keep themselves young by extending their creativity beyond the workplace. Smart creative businesses recognise this instinctively.

But the scientists show that looser frontal-lobe organisation can heighten creativity in older people. As Professor Rex Jung says: “You have lots of data at your hands and you have fewer brakes on your frontal inhibitors, and you are able to put things together in your novel and useful way.”

No wonder McKinsey and others have discovered that the more diverse a business – in terms of gender, ethnicity and age – the more successful the business. Ageism isn’t just against the law. It’s against the interests of your business. And, maybe, even against the interests of the most powerful country in the world.