As computers get better, there are massive advantages of being older

Summation: Older people (over 50) are getting more advantages from computers than younger ones.  We should expect to see a huge renaissance the productivity of older business people in the future.

In business, there are advantages of being younger and advantages at being older.   And historically there has been tensions between the two.

Many advantages of Being Younger

Fearlessness: 
Youngers people have less fear of older ones.  They have less to lose, less social status, no mortgage.   If they fail, they will not be lower on the status ring.  The best soldiers are usually those in their 20s.  

Older people have much more to lose and that means they are often quite poor at calculating risks.

More time:  
The older you are, the more time commitments you gather. You eventually get married and have kids.  You volunteer at a non-profit. You get involved in your church.  You pick up golf as a hobby.  You go to the Sundance Film Festival and Burning Man every year.  

When you’re younger, you have not yet accumulated the debt of these commitments.  That allows you to spend more time working.  Of course, not every young person spends a great deal of time working (many spend an equal amount of time socializing) … but those that do concentrate on work have a massive advantage because working hours compound.  Almost all super-successful people worked insane hours in their 20s.  In fact, people who do not work insane hours in their 20s are at a massive disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

More raw brainpower: 
Younger people have better working memory, they have more stamina, and they have more calculations per second.  They have a much faster CPU.  It seems unlikely that we will have a 55 year old chess champion.  And most Physics Nobel prizes went to work that was done by people in their 20s or early 30s.

More ignorance of “what works”:
Older people are more likely to get stuck in their ways.  They have a hard time seeing that the Emperor really has no clothes.  So they are more likely to do things the way they have been done before.  The old saying “science advances one funeral at a time” applies to business innovation as well.  

But there are also many advantages of Being Older

Money:
Older people are a lot richer than younger ones.  Many older people gain leverage by hiring younger people and telling them what to do.  They are often able to rent the time, fearlessness, and brainpower of younger people.

Cunning:
Cunning is the ability to work with people and also work against people.  It is something one gets better at over time.  It is not something people are just born with.  A 55-year-old can often play two 25-year-olds against each other.

Wisdom:
While young people benefit from ignorance, older people benefit from wisdom (which is the opposite side of the coin).  Older people have had more time to read, learn, and compound knowledge.  

Connections:
While “What-You-Know” is now more important than “Who-You-Know”, who-you-know is still important.  Older people have had more time to develop meaningful connections.  And many of those connections will be other very successful people.  I did not know any major CEOs, U.S. Senators, world-renowned authors, etc. when I was 22 (but many of the people I met when I was 22 turned into these people).

Stature:
Older people have a history and a brand.  And while that history can work against them (like a voting record for a member of Congress), it gives comfort for others to work with them.  People with a brand have an advantage in recruiting talent, raising money, etc.  If an entrepreneur sold their last company for $300 million, it will be a lot easier for her to recruit people to her next company than a first-time entrepreneur.

Less competition:
Weirdly, older entrepreneurs have a lot less competition than younger entrepreneurs.  At least in Silicon Valley, it seems there are 100 times more entrepreneurs in their 20s than entrepreneurs in their 50s.  Most successful people in their 50s have no desire to go through the rigor of starting a company again.  They usually opt for less stressful lives (like deciding to be a venture capitalist or running a winery).  That means that those 50+ people that do decide to start companies have a pretty big advantage because there are a not a lot of wise, well-connected, monied people who they are competing with.

Young vs Old: Who Wins?

To summarize the post thus far:

AdvantageYoungOld
Fearlessness
Wisdom
Raw brainpower
Ability to buy brainpower and time
Time
Cunning
Ignorance
Connections
Stature
Less Competition

The advantages of being young seems to equal the advantages of being old … at least when it comes to starting companies.  

Historically young people have a way higher failure rate … but they also have a much higher rate of creating an iconic company (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc.).

In the past there was a tension between young and old. The young having big advantages in some societies and the old having big advantages in others.  If I had to pull a number out of my butt, I would say that the best age to start a company has been 34 (not exactly “young” but definitely not old).

The best age to start a company will get much higher as computers are becoming a bigger part of our lives …

How the age advantages shift with computers: advantage to the older

Computers significantly change the advantage calculation. 

Computers give younger people more access to wisdom through easy access to knowledge. The compounding advantage that older people have had in the past is going to be less important in the future. Computers also make it easier to find people and get in touch with them — so the Who-You-Knows are going to be less valuable in the future — and younger people, while still having less access to connections, are at less of a disadvantage here.

But computers help older people IMMENSELY.  

Computers are the world’s best way to get access to raw brainpower. And as more brainpower tasks are getting taken over by computers, people with money (older people) will have a significant advantage over those that don’t (younger folks).

The proliferation of tech services also advantage older people. You can get access to the best APIs and services with dollars. Of course, most people (especially older people) will have trouble selecting and managing vendors. Most people (especially old people) are going to be trapped in the 20th century paradigm (one that rewards hiring and growing people). The most important business skill in the 21st century is the ability to select and manage vendors. But the older people that can successful navigate the new world will have an advantage.

As computers get stronger, it gets easier and easier to buy time and brainpower. We already have compute-on-demand (AWS) and people-on-demand (UpWork).

The biggest disadvantage that remains for older people is being trapped in an old way of thinking. If science really advances one funeral at a time, innovation could be significantly slowed as older people have more advantages (and are living longer).

One of the advantages that older people have that seems to be not going away is lack of competition. It used to be that very few 24 year olds ever thought about starting a company (especially those that had lots of opportunities). Even when I started an Internet company in college in the 1990s, it was really strange to have a student entrepreneur. Today it is becoming easier and easier to for 24 year olds to start companies — easier to get training, knowledge, and seed capital. YCombinator and other institutions have significantly promoted entrepreneurism among the young. My guess is that the number of amazing twenty-somethings starting companies has gone up at least 5 times in the last decade … and that trend is happening all over the world.

But people over 50 are still not starting companies in large numbers. It never was big, and I see no anecdotal evidence that it is growing. People that have been successful in the 30s and 40s are rarely opting to get back “in it” in their 50s. Instead, they are opting for easier and less stressful lives. So the few 50-somethings that do start companies could have increasing advantages. Especially those that still put in the long hours. (Even Bill Gates, one of the best entrepreneurs ever, hung up his business cleats before he turned 50).

More people in their 50s SHOULD start companies. It is actually a great time to start a company. Many people in their 50s are empty nesters (or at least no longer have super young kids). They can actually travel more and work harder than those in their 40s because they have fewer family obligations. They are usually more financially secure (maybe have paid off their mortgage already) and potentially more willing to take some sort of financial risk. And people in their 50s have so much more energy today than in years past — people live healthier, are more active, etc.

What are the societal implications of computers giving older people advantages?

The most obvious implication is wealth inequality. If older people get more advantages as they age, their wealth will compound faster. Coupled with living longer (and being active longer) means more wealth inequality.

Since the person in their 50s is more likely to build a one-to-N business than a zero-to-one business … it could mean less innovation for society and more incrementalism.

But it also could give hope to millions of people who are over the age of 50 and still have big dreams and ambitions. Ambition shouldn’t end at 45. Computers can keep ambition going way longer than in the past.

This also means that MORE 50-year-olds should start companies. However, I don’t think they will. So the few 50-year-olds that do should see very big advantages.

Summation: They advantage of getting older is growing. Computers are getting better at doing what young people do.  

Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett

3 thoughts on “As computers get better, there are massive advantages of being older

  1. Ravikanth

    Older people have more patterns about their world in their mind if I am not wrong. Should n’t they be learning faster than younger people? This should be true for at least some of the older people(who keep themselves healthy and focussed) if not most.

    Reply
  2. Joshua Adler

    Auren, you are speculating about something that has been studied. Your guess that the optimal founder age is 34 is wrong. It is 45. A peer-reviewed, published MIT Sloan study found that: “Many observers, and many investors, believe that young people are especially likely to produce the most successful new firms. We use administrative data at the U.S. Census Bureau to study the ages of founders of growth-oriented start-ups in the past decade. Our primary finding is that successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not young. The mean founder age for the 1 in 1,000 fastest growing new ventures is 45.0. The findings are broadly similar when considering high-technology sectors, entrepreneurial hubs, and successful firm exits. Prior experience in the specific industry predicts much greater rates of entrepreneurial success. These findings strongly reject common hypotheses that emphasize youth as a key trait of successful entrepreneurs.” https://www.nber.org/papers/w24489.pdf
    (p.s., I am a 45-year-old founder of a high growth tech company)

    Reply

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