I happened to see a bit of the filming of the new Bond when I was in Rome a couple of weeks ago, so there have been one or two Bond office chats recently. There’s a wonderful moment in the film Skyfall where Bond meets the new ‘Q’. Rather than the grey haired old Major played by Desmond Llewellyn, Q was a young man with curly hair and spots. The two exchanged insults culminating in Q claiming “age is no guarantee of experience.” Quick as a flash 007 replies “and youth is no guarantee of innovation.”
Both statements are true. A long serving employee is not always a good one, especially if he or she has been badly managed, and bringing in fresh, young minds does not always create the new way forward a business is looking for if they’re the wrong minds. It is sometimes difficult to wean recruiting employers away from these awful, inaccurate stereotypes. People are just people and everyone can bring something useful to the party (it depends which party of course, but I’m sure you understand the point). I send my younger team members to run our schools employment programme, Build and Fly Your Own Rocket, because the students identify far better with those in their 20s than those in their 50s. On the other hand, sometimes I have to send older team members in to deal with certain HR problems because no matter how knowledgeable the younger members, we know the recipients of the discussion will respond better if it’s from someone closer to their age.
Often age will play little part in whether someone is right for a job. The Finnish city of Oulu, with an average age of just 34, might beg to differ. Oulu made the headlines for the massive job loss it suffered following Microsoft’s takeover of Nokia. After the initial shock, the talented inhabitants have set up numerous SMEs led by fairly young teams. They came up with the seemingly mad idea of the Polar Bear Pitch where entrepreneurs come from far and wide to leap into the icy waters of the city and make a business pitch – what ITV might call Dragons’ Den on Ice.
Sound weird? It is! But it has become a remarkable event with investment from the UK and other European countries. A community of youngish professionals, getting over the shock of redundancy and needing to go on making a living for a significant part of their lives, has turned Oulu into a business-focused media magnet.
In Britain, the government (and the other major parties) are making big efforts to encourage entrepreneurs in this sort of vein. Although age is rarely mentioned, most publicity leans towards younger ‘dynamic’ people.
The truth is that the energy, skill and passion required to build a business can come from people of all ages. Warren Buffett, now in his 80s and still arguably the world’s shrewdest investor, continues to be light years ahead of the average market expert – a combination of huge experience and a mind that can see a good idea flourishing years in the future. He’s made mistakes, Tesco being the obvious example, but he’s still the man investors want to talk to when looking for the next big thing.
The push for apprenticeships and practical training for young people is just as important as the push for entrepreneurial spirit. The best leaders know what it means to do the work of the business as well as have the passion to run it. Mr Buffett made his first investment in his childhood when he bought some fizzy drinks cans and sold them for a profit. He never stopped learning and practicing and kept improving.
The idea that age alone denotes a person’s performance in most financial and service sector roles is a fallacy. Much depends on attitude, mindset, skills, drive and know-how. Great entrepreneurs are a mix of ages, as are great employed professionals.
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