At an event held at Stanford University in 2007, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was in his early 20s at the time, notoriously declared that “Young people are just smarter.” His remark has reverberated through workplaces in the tech industry and beyond ever since, as employers look for talent who can help their businesses navigate rapid change.
But the idea that younger workers are more innovative, more talented and more valuable hurts the career opportunities available to older adults, particularly those who may produce their biggest achievements later in life. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, challenges the misperceptions about the cognitive abilities of adults at different ages. By blending scientific research with his journalistic knowledge about what makes businesses successful, Karlgaard, who is 64, makes a compelling argument for why older people can, in fact, be some of the smartest employees on the job.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In many ways it seems that in order to be considered really successful today, you have to accomplish amazing things when you're still in your 20s. How does that standard affect older workers?
Karlgaard: Most of the early achievers used to come from music or movies or TV or other entertainment forms. I think it's more recently when the rise of all these people who have gone out and dropped out of college and created technology companies and become billionaires before they're 25 that has added a whole new dimension to this.
It has added this trickle-down effect where schools and educators and even parents are buying into this idea that if their kids aren't performing extremely well on standardized tests and grades, that if they aren't getting into elite colleges and universities, that life will be difficult for them. It ignores the facts. Even in technology, when you step back and look at it, there are a lot of middle-age successes in Silicon Valley, which is supposed to be all about youthful success.
There's a lot of ageism in Silicon Valley, where I live. This might be ground central for ageism in the economy. And so much talent is lost because of this.
Why don't late bloomers get more attention?
Karlgaard: It kind of blows me away that if you Google the term “late bloomer,” at least when I was starting the research for this book, you keep running into the same names that have been around forever, like Colonel Sanders [of KFC], Ray Kroc [of McDonald's], [or artist] Grandma Moses. We need a refresh here to talk about people who are blooming in middle age and beyond. There are a lot of great examples out there in Hollywood, technology, entrepreneurship.
Based on the research you studied for your book, at what age do our cognitive abilities peak?
Karlgaard: The answer depends, because you have multiple cognitive abilities. Sure, if you're talking about software programming under a time pressure, that tends to favor people with rapid cognitive processing skills and great working memory — and both of those peak in our teens and 20s.
But when we get into our 30s, 40s and 50s, the whole set of cognitive abilities that support executive functioning, management skills, leadership skills, communication skills, compassion — all the things you want in a person who is going to progress through their career to higher levels of responsibility, whether they're doing it for someone else's company, for a nonprofit organization or for their own start-up — those continue to progress and grow. And when we lose let's say a little of the cognitive processing speed that peaks in our early 20s, we lose it at a very shallow rate. We don't drop off a cliff, at all. It's really negligible, the loss of those skills, and it's overwhelmed by the gains we get in these other things.
What we get is a higher creative yield when we get older. We may have more raw creativity when we're younger, but we get much better at figuring out what exactly to do with these creative insights — how useful are they? — because we can stack them up against this memory of things that have worked.
All we really have to do is stay healthy to the degree that we can and stay mentally engaged, and there's no reason why our 60s and 70s and beyond can't be equally fertile.
What should employers do to make better use of workers who bloom later in life?
Karlgaard: The companies, the big employers really need to think about someone's career as an arc, not an up-and-out, one-way track. And this is where I think that corporate legal departments and corporate [human resources] departments have dropped the ball. They need to be bolder about creating career arcs for people who peak in their 50s and beyond.