New Big Idea Challenge: Stop Age Discrimination

It is one thing to restrict participation in a youth soccer league to youth but what justification exists for restricting participation in an intellectual challenge on the basis of age?

Next City, a non-profit organization that receives funding from some of America’s major foundations, is hosting a gathering on May 6-7 in my city of residence, Reno, Nevada, that will feature “the top urban innovators, 40 years old and younger, working to make change in cities.”   According to the press release, Next City’s annual Vanguard Conference is “a chance for the brightest urban thinkers from the America’s to prototype a design intervention that, if successful, could be replicated elsewhere.”  The conference,“Big Idea Challenge, Reno 2015,” is being co-sponsored by the city of Reno.

You don’t have to be a bright urban thinker to recognize that this kind of event sends a negative message to people who are aged 41 and older. They are made to feel like “other,” “lesser” and “yesterday.”  Why? There is no evidence that America’s brightest urban thinkers are aged 40 and under.

Age discrimination is so prevalent in American society that it is invisible. But think about this. Would The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Knight Foundation (among others) support an event that discriminates on the basis of race or sex?  Remember the old stereotypes about whites being smarter than blacks and men being smarter than women? Why is it more acceptable to characterize young people as brighter and more innovative than older people? Age discrimination is just as harmful as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin or gender orientation.  And all discrimination is fueled by false stereotypes and fear and animus directed against a discrete group

One of the most prevalent stereotypes about aging is that people become rigid with age or less vital and creative. This stereotype is given free reign in Silicon Valley, the home of high tech, which is a virtual apartheid state for young workers. But moving from age 40 to 41 does not cause any loss of brain function or ability to innovate or to be creative.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that that the reverse is true.

According to Newsweek,  older entrepreneurs are more innovative than younger workers. They are less in the news because they tend to start new companies that produce complex technologies like biotech, energy or IT hardware and to sell their products and services to other businesses, which consumers rarely see. Newsweek cites a study by Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa of 549 successful technology ventures that found most were started by people over the age of 40 and that older entrepreneurs have a higher success rate than young people when they start a company. Wadhwa is the director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research at Duke. Newsweek also cites a study by the Kauffman Foundation that found people older than 55 are almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between the ages of 20 and 34.

Innovation cannot be predicted by age. One reason that people (including older people) think that young people are brighter and more innovative is that they are bombarded with negative messages, such as the one sent by the Next City Vanguard “Big Idea” event. The goal of Next City and the city of Reno  is admirable – to help urban centers that are struggling with poverty and unemployment. For this reason, I don’t want to write off the organization but I would propose that Next City consider a new Big Idea Challenge – how to embrace diversity and encourage a society where everyone, regardless of age, is treated with dignity and respect.