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During the 20th century, the average age at which scientists attained their greatest achievements increased by about six years, according to Benjamin F. Jones, an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Though Jones says great innovations still tend to be mainly “the provenance of youth,” in some ways it could be getting harder for young people to access the levers of innovation. This trend may reach beyond the realms of science into the broader world of work, and economic factors are most likely at play.
College students are taking longer to earn a degree, thus beginning their working lives years later than previous generations. This was exacerbated during the recession, when many young people either postponed work to continue their studies or spent their first few years after school unemployed.
Even as the job market slowly improves, those in their 20s are more likely than people in other age groups to be unemployed or underemployed. Many young job seekers fortunate enough to land positions are spending a longer amount of time in entry-level roles that have less autonomy, decision-making authority, and access to the tools and equipment that drive innovation within their industries.
In the 1990s, many young people responded to poor economic conditions by starting their own businesses and becoming driving forces in the era of dot-com startups. But there is some evidence that this avenue is less an option for today’s young people, who may be discouraged by tight credit, high student loan debt and an uncertain business environment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of entrepreneurs starting new U.S. businesses in 2010 was the lowest in more than a decade.
Beyond the negative implications for the labor market, weak startup growth may have slowed the pace of innovation in the years ahead. More broadly, the long recession may have led to a lost generation, where young people in their prime “innovative years” will have difficulty reaching their full potential. This could have lasting effects in a range of industries and organizations of all sizes, affecting leadership development strategies and the potential contributions of new entrants to the workplace.
But HR professionals can help by looking for ways to boost the innovative potential of employees of all ages. While retention may not have been a concern during the recession, now HR leaders find it critical to identify and support potential future leaders and high-potentials so they can do their best work.
It is crucial for HR professionals to encourage collaboration and find ways to give employees decision-making authority and the autonomy to develop new approaches, ideas, products and services. Many of today’s most important business innovations emerge from the periphery or the bottom up. Supporting this kind of innovation can be challenging: The resulting ideas are often strong and sometimes even game-changers, but the process of generating them can be more fluid and less structured than top-down approaches to innovation. Organizations that harness this energy are likely to benefit from the innovations themselves and from developing a new generation of employees and business leaders to reach their full potential.
The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.
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