Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In March of this year, I was fortunate to be named one of Forbes’ Next 1000 Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. I am honored to be part of that list and to see my name surrounded by so many impressive individuals. Yet, at 49 years old, I am also one of the oldest people on it. (14th oldest, to be exact.) I don’t generally consider myself old, so I was surprised about that ranking, and since then, the list has made me think more extensively about age and bias at work and in entrepreneurship.

How old is a successful founder? 

Especially in the tech sector, there’s a persistent stereotype that most tech founders are in their early 20s. Yet, according to ReadWrite, “twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. 75% have more than 6 years of industry experience, and 50% have more than 10 years when they create their startup. The highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34 – in fact, the 20-34 age bracket has the lowest rate of entrepreneurial activity.” 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

This data proves that a founder’s age and experience are beneficial to business success: a point supported by additional research from Bloomberg, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review. But, I like that Bloomberg brings a more nuanced view to the conversation. “Super talented people,” they write, “are going to do great things even when they’re young [but] that doesn’t mean they’re not going to do even better things when they’re older.” 

Valuing youth and age

Over the past two decades, there has been a pendulum swing in how we value age at work. That’s especially true in technology, which can be genuinely youth-obsessed, but it happens in almost every sector. People often think that youth equates to greater creativity, that early-career professionals are more flexible in their thinking, and that therefore, younger is better and stronger. In my experience, it used to be the opposite: people conflated age with acumen and overvalued people’s length of service. 

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The truth is that both of those responses show age-related bias — one bias that assumes “age” means “wisdom” and another that assumes “youth” means “innovation.” Today, let’s talk about age discrimination against older people in particular and debunk some myths about being being older in the workforce, especially in entrepreneurship. 

Disguising age-related bias 

Age is a protected class under equal employment law. Still, ageism is rampant in modern business. In fact, according to Propublica, a full 56% of workers who are 50+ have been pushed out of their jobs before they were ready to retire because of age-related bias, typically disguised as performance-related concerns. Some quotes in their research include:

  • “Older workers can’t handle the day-to-day demands of the job.”
  • “They can’t be retrained and are too hard to manage.”
  • “They cost too much money in salary and benefits.”
  • “They create too much risk of an employment discrimination claim.”

If you do just one thing after reading this article, I hope you’ll read “How to Avoid Ageism” from the Society for Human Resource Management. It contains more great data than I can fit into this column, but here is the single biggest takeaway: “on almost every dimension of job performance, research shows that older workers perform better than younger workers […] They’re more conscientious, they’re absent less and they have better social skills.”

According to a study from MIT and Northwestern University, older people are also much more likely to be successful as entrepreneurs. As the authors explain their research in Forbes, “age indeed predicts success, and sharply, but in the opposite way that many propose. The highest success rates in entrepreneurship come from founders in middle age and beyond.” Yet older founders face frequent age-related bias from investors. If I were in venture capital or private equity, I’d certainly be paying attention to those numbers. 

Actions to combat age-related bias

To mitigate age-related bias, first, we have to teach and learn more about unconscious bias — and ageism specifically — because you cannot change what you aren’t aware of. And, to be frank about it, age-related bias is one of the most commonly-accepted forms of discrimination

Also, let’s expand our definition of diversity. Diversity isn’t just race and gender. It also includes disability, veteran status, social status, geography, religion, neurodiversity, dialect, marital status, and more. By expanding the way we describe diversity, we encourage people to think about the ways that “diversity” includes them as well. 

Third, follow best practices for diverse hiring with one eye on age-related bias. That means removing age-related information from all applicants’ resumes, ensuring an age-diverse interview panel that follows a standardized interview process, and crafting all job descriptions with age-inclusive language. Words like “digital native,” “tech-savvy,” and “high energy” discourage older professionals from applying, and words like “recent college graduate” may even be used as proof of age discrimination.

Innovation through diversity 

If we really want greater innovation, we don’t need more “young” or “old” people; we need to reject the idea that one is better than another. Age is a spectrum, not a binary concept, after all. And tapping into innovative thought requires a broad range of experiences, ages, skill sets and generations. 

To build a better, stronger business or workforce, we need diversity of thought within our teams. We need to train ourselves to see the individual and fight the tendency to stereotype people because of their age, or any other reason. In reality, each person will bring their own unique skills, wisdom, and capacity for innovation, regardless of the year they were born. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com

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