It’s easy to think that this is a young person’s world. You can look at the Zuckerberg and Jobs types and think: “It’s a young person’s game in business and making a difference. I wish I were young and had the energy I did then.” But the truth about the most entrepreneurial and most industrious people in our world is far from the imagined stereotype.

best years ahead

If you’re like many of my readers, you’re in what I could now safely call pre-middle aged. 60 is the new middle-aged! If you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’ve certainly not yet reached the latter part of life! My parents are in their early 70s and I still consider them young, even if some of the joints have had some work.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report for 2014 (published 2015), notes that although the highest percentage of early stage entrepreneurs born in a particular decade around the globe is those in the ages of 25-34, for every decade afterward, through to people in their 60s, the percentage of people involved in new business ventures is only slightly lower. This means that in Asia and Oceania, for example, around 8% of the population between ages 55 and 64 is in a start-up, around 12% of 45-54 years and around 14% of 35-44 year olds. Therefore, even accounting for demographic differences, the vast majority of those starting up new businesses are well over the age of 35.

An article by Ann Tergesen in the Wall Street Journal, in late 2014, breaks down many of the myths about aging that have been perpetuated in our youth-mad Western culture. (You will need a subscription to read the article in full, but it’s well worth it!) The article points out varieties of research demonstrating that cognitive growth (not decline) can be the standard for aging people, productivity can often be higher in older workers, and creativity, wisdom, happiness and contentment can all flourish in the older years.

So what can you do, if you’re a little older, to aim for something even higher in the coming years?

Why Do People Decline?

Many times, decline in cognitive functioning is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy: people think they will decline and don’t do the mental work they used to, and therefore grow ‘old’ before their time. Of course, ill-health and disease can seriously affect one, as does advanced age. However, our societies have been living longer, what with decreases in plagues, wars and economic downturns that have drastically reduced the lifespans of the past, along with a concomitant increase in more effective health care, nutrition, forms of moderate exercise and other lifestyle benefits.

10 Reasons Why Older People Can Be the New Innovators and Leaders

Our society’s fixation with being and marketing to the young is damaging both socially and economically, as it puts the focus on an interim stage when, let’s face it, most people are not at their best. Let’s run through a few of the reasons why your best years may still be ahead of you.

1. The Kids Are Out of the Home or Are Independent

Given that many are now having their first children in their 30s, rather than their 20s, that means that the demanding ‘nesting’ period is over when parents have reached their mid-to-late 40s and early 50s. Your energy can rebound after you’ve nursed your kids through high school and start to see them being successful and independent in their studies or work. Now that the kids are less dependent on you, you can devote time and energy to other projects that have been waiting in the wings or forming in your mind for many years.

2. You Have Perspective on What’s Tough

Having gone through the ups and downs of raising your kids brings enormous perspective to the work of leadership and service. Your business is going through a rut? “You should have seen it when my son was 15 and was despairing about his future!” You have a rough time working with some unmotivated employees? “You should have seen how my daughter was when she was being bullied at school!” There’s a dip in revenue and budgetary demands? “Try running a family, schooling, lessons, transport, two cars and a mortgage on one or one and a half incomes!”

Likewise, the cycles of economic downturn, wars and threats of wars, can help you to have perspective on both what’s really difficult as well as how to thrive during those times. The generation that survived the bombings of WWII knew what hardship was and they built thriving societies after the war. They had perspective.

3. You Have Perspective on What Matters

Age itself provides valuable perspective. Thus, the “digital revolution” appears to you nothing so much as another change in how information is managed, not a ‘fundamental change in economy’ that Silicon Valley programmers believe. People still buy a product that they value. Concrete things still need to be built and used. You can only run an investment scheme so long before it collapses without tangible assets. People are still the ones who run the show.

There’s an old saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (taken from the writings of old King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes). Are mobile smart phones new? Well, yes, but what they’re used for isn’t – talking to friends, spreading gossip and getting messages to people when running late for appointments. Because of your experience, you can look differently at fads, crises, priorities and cycles and judge what’s really important here.

4. You Have Access to Capital and Lowered Risk

With the kids’ education taken care of, your assets safe, the mortgage (mostly) paid and some retirement money provided for, you have access to capital that you can invest in ventures – whether your own or others’ ventures. That is why there is a growing boom in baby boomer entrepreneurship. You can safely obtain cash through equity on the value of your home, other assets or through your network, without breaking the bank and torpedoing your family.

5. You Understand the Market

While younger people – in their teens and twenties – are those aggressively marketed to by the big firms, it’s misleading. Who has the money that is spent on their phones? Who has the money spent on their toys? Who has the money spent on their clothes? Who subsidises their car payments (or buys the vehicle outright)? Who guarantees their loans? Why, it’s you. The untold truth that a lot of the marketing world does not understand is that it’s those in their 40s, 50s and early 60s who have the most disposable income and spend to make possible their children’s toys.

You understand that market better than anyone. So why not market to them directly, instead of through their kids, and provide the services and products that your market most values?

6. You Have Wisdom From Time and In the Face of Limited Time

It’s funny how things can come into focus, based on the years you’ve been around. Searching through your past years and looking ahead to fewer years than you’ve already had can help you to gain and exercise wisdom in your choices, in your purpose and in your leadership.

Having become an expert in your profession or exposure to a number of business areas, you can only then fully appreciate the minutiae of where and how things need to be improved. That means your age is a positive factor in being able to perform highly.

When he retired from politics a number of years ago, Australian Federal Minister Kim Beazley (who now serves as Ambassador to the USA), I listened to him state that, having been in politics most of his adult life, he sincerely believed that someone should not enter politics until past the age of 50. It means the person has experience, credibility, wisdom and perspective that could never accrue otherwise.

Many nations have elected younger leaders in their 40s, even, hoping that their youth would lend energy and innovation. But those nations have actually regretted those elections, by and large, as those individuals were still there trying to prove themselves (see Point 10) and their worth, rather than having the necessary experience and wisdom that could serve their people.

7. You Can Manage Complexity

One of the leading social scientists in leadership and organisational design, Elliott Jaques, spent decades developing and researching the effectiveness of leaders over their lifespan. It’s heady research and his data demonstrated conclusively that the ability to lead in managerial and organisational settings was highly dependent on an individual’s ability to manage complexity. And that was not at its best when one was younger!

In fact, performance was better when one was older – in the late 50s and into the 60s (and presumable 70s and beyond for healthy individuals). Jaques could plot someone on a graph to determine at what age (all things progressing well) they would be able to confidently and competently manage large enterprises.

Even those with an extremely high IQ at a young age did not outperform older managerial leaders with good intelligence. Because our ability to manage complexity is related to our development of cognitive experience and our neural networks. Our brains do get more sophisticated over time.

In other words (as they used to say), you need experience in order to be able to manage stuff. And that can only come with time, opportunity and effort. If you’re not better at it now than you used to be, you probably need to rework how you work. But you can do it better than when you were younger.

8. Your Creativity Can Leap Ahead

Leonardo da Vinci completed his most famous masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, in 1506, when he was around 54 years of age. He was still productive for many more years. In his 60s, he was inventing mechanical (robotic) lions and more. This isn’t an accident.

Many of the most enduring and powerful works of the millennia are from men and women who produced them with the maturity and skill and perspective built through a lifetime of study, discipline and development. The same is true today. Many fields of endeavour – medicine, chemistry, physics, engineering, architecture and more – require decades to master what is already known, let alone to come up with something new.

That means that your middle-aged to senior years can tap into vast reservoirs to lead a peak of innovation and creativity.

9. Your Ego is Not Dependent on Your Success at Work

Poor ego undermines so much of effective leadership. Decision-making, relationships, strategy and execution are all undermined by an ego desperate for external affirmation. The older you get, the easier it often is to say,”Really, I don’t care what you think” (in a polite way of course). Your self-identity does not rest on others’ opinion of you (unless you’re an actor) and you are therefore more personally confident and resilient in the face of failure, which is an absolute necessity for leaders.

As an experienced individual, you should be able to promote and include those – young people included – who are doing outstanding work, because you do not feel threatened by their ability, ideas, drive or energy. Rather, you can look back, feel content with who you are and help others to achieve their potential – even if it is greater than your own.

10. You Know You Can’t and Don’t Have To Do It Alone

When they’re young, people often want to ‘do it alone’. They’re trying to prove themselves, establish their identities, gain independence and so on. But as you age, you realise more and more that the ‘lone ranger’ type is a myth and that you need to find and use a network of great people in order to accomplish something great.

I have watched too many leaders, in too many situations, isolate themselves as younger men or women and take on a ridiculous, self-imposed ‘burden of leadership’ that denied the fact that a leader is a leader of people all working towards a cause or purpose together – a leader is not a self-serving individualist on whom everything depends.

Long-term friendships, peer groups, networks and acquaintances mean that you can feel less alone and actually enjoy your work and your life more than you ever have. If you have a good relationship with your children or extended family, then you can also seek their assistance and talents as you chart new courses. Their involvement in your life, and you in theirs, will only enrich everything you do. And if you’re reaching the age where you have grandchildren around or on the way, there’s even more for you to rejoice in.

Steve Jobs was 52 years old when he launched the iPhone. Becoming older does not mean the death of self, ambitions, hopes and dreams. It can actually mean the reawakening of those, as you face the prospects of coming years. Use your experience and position in life to continue dreaming, growing and achieving the things that really meaning something.

© 2015 Peter J. McLean.

Your Best Years Are Still Ahead

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