Youth: an evolving bias

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...the important thing is not how many years in your life but how much life in your years.
— Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D.

There are good reasons to judge someone as being ‘too young’. You wouldn’t want a five year old to drink wine or to drive a car (at least not the motorised kind). However, there comes a point when exclusion based on youth stops being a justifiable safety precaution and becomes a blurry subconscious opportunity blocker. That blocker can be ourselves or someone else. Both matter.

On several occasions over the years, I’ve sat across the desk from mentors and colleagues, stared into the whites of their eyes, and judged myself too young for a forthcoming opportunity. Citing my own half-baked presumptions about my age, I’ve barricaded my own progression and held myself back. Whilst that kind of self-doubt can be managed and overcome, there is a darker side to this dilemma that is harder to control. I’ve also experienced times where I’ve been brimming with opportunistic confidence about an opportunity only to be shot down by a more senior acquaintance saying that I might, in fact, be too young to go for it. Such quips are often said with innocence but they can be as unfounded as they are damaging.

Why is it so easy to judge ourselves and others based on age?

We can hold ourselves or others back based on chronological age. After all, age in years is an easy metric to measure. You then count age like magic beans in a pouch and miraculously correlate that with the level of wisdom in the person holding the pouch. As every statistics teacher told everyone they ever met: correlation doesn’t always equal causation.

In the process of quantifying age, we often neglect the more qualitative, less tangible trait of emotional intelligence. It’s possible for an 8-year-old to have the mental capacity of a 12-year-old who is ready for high school. It’s possible that a 25-year-old could have the ability to be a professor or a CEO like someone typically 10 years their elder. A problem here is that because we often hold ourselves back using numerical youth as an excuse, it’s easy to judge other people on this basis when we’re in a position of power or leadership. If someone looks ‘young’ it doesn’t mean they don’t have the necessary skills for the job. They might have advanced emotional intelligence far beyond their years. Wisdom might correlate with age…but how steep is the trend line? Whether you are the interviewer or interviewee, the boss or the employee, there are challenges of youth-based bias and self-doubt on both sides.

If you search for a person called Jack Andraka, you’ll hear the story of an amazing scientific triumph. Jack developed an impossibly cheap and sensitive method of detecting one of the most aggressive and feared forms of cancer - pancreatic. Before Jack could formerly test his hypothesis, he needed a lab. He wrote to 200 university professors and received 199 rejections. Jack was 15 years old at the time of his discovery. What if Jack had achieved a 100% rejection rate? What if that one person who saw past Jack’s age didn’t respond so openly?

Bias against youth is more dangerous now than ever before. Why?

The key point is that people learn faster and think more abstractly with every new generation. The average intelligence of someone in your grandparents’ generation is typically not as high as someone who is in their prime today. I trust, too, that my daughter and her children (should my daughter ever choose to have kids) will be generally much smarter than I am. The Flynn Effect shows that average IQ increases typically 3 points per decade, in all regions of the world. Granted, talking in general terms, averages, and IQ doesn’t tell the full story of intelligence but it does illustrate the crucial point here. The correlation between age and wisdom is a correlation that is forever evolving.

Moral philosopher James Flynn makes the case that changes in the way we think have had surprising (and not always positive) consequences.

Being told to “respect your elders” because “they know best” is often perfectly reasonable. We must always be conscious, however, that just because someone has existed longer, it doesn’t mean they’ve lived longer. Advanced age does not necessarily, unbreakably, inarguably track emotional or cognitive agility. Advice that was once golden to the senior person whose advice you now seek, might not be relevant advice anymore. Some advice stands the test of time but not always. If you’re asked to give your advice, don’t start with something like, “Back in my day…”. The person in your care will be tempted to ignore you. Your advice has to balance your life experience with some knowledge of where the world is going.

To be a leader for today’s Millennial generation, it’s beneficial to understand what experience you can bring to your team that is still relevant in a fast-moving world. Chip Conley, hotelier, author, and hospitality strategist, took a role in the company AirBNB as one of its oldest employees after 24 years running his own hotel business. He has since called the process of leading wisely for a generation who are more youthful and more tech-savvy than you are as becoming a ‘Modern Elder’. Leaders must balance wisdom of experience with a willingness to learn from younger people.

How will you make the conscious effort to see beyond youth when building your own team?