Why Baby Boomers are the innovators of the future
It’s time for a new picture.
Baby Boomers are starting companies at a faster pace than ever before, according to a March report by the Kauffman Foundation and younger workers lack the disposable income and job prospects they once had. This means we may be witnessing a passing of the innovation baton to members of the older generation. As older Americans begin to define the debate around innovation, then the generation gap will soon make its presence felt in innovation hubs like Silicon Valley.
The 18-to-34 demographic, of course, was largely the creation of the previous mass media era, offering an easy heuristic for understanding the consumption habits of the youngest generation. If, as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla once suggested, people stop trying new things after age 30, the 18-to-34 demographic was always the sweet spot of the market for new innovations.
But not anymore. As Matt Miller writes, America’s youth is struggling.
Meanwhile, the 55-to-64 demographic now boasts the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America, while - surprise! - the lowest rate of entrepreneurship actually belongs to the 20-to-34 demographic. That’s not all. The fastest rate of social media adoption now also belongs to the Baby Boomers and seniors, according to 2010 data from eMarketer. While there are still more Millennials than Baby Boomers who are active on social media, Facebook has become the type of place where your grandparents might hang out, with 47 percent of all Boomers now maintaining a social media presence.
Not surprisingly, the private sector is taking notice. Earlier this month, Pfizer debuted a much talked-about site, GetOld.com, which sought to understand the changing ideas, thoughts and biases of the older generation. The Pfizer campaign, which was intended to create a dialogue around getting older and living better, found that most people expected to retire around age 64 and live until they were 84. More impressively, this 64-to-84 demographic showed a remarkable optimism about the future. Contrast that optimism with what many disillusioned recent college or graduate school graduates must be feeling as they face limited career prospects, a huge student loan debt burden and a nagging sense that many in the political establishment are ignoring the issues most important to them.
If, as many suspect, health care will provide the next big surge in innovation, then it will clearly be the aging Baby Boomers — not the 18-to-34 demographic — who will be leading the way. They have the most at stake in how private and public sector dollars are spent. Already, 50 percent of federal benefits in the form of social security payments and Medicare go to a tiny sliver (13 percent) of the population age 65 and older. Aging Baby Boomers also have the disposable income, free time and optimism to try new things that once were exclusively the preserve of their younger colleagues. A Gallup poll released by Pfizer showed that aging Boomers were particularly interested in innovations that could reduce any physical limitations and promise them good health. If you were a health-care innovator and had a new product that could deliver on this promise, wouldn’t you try to sell it to the people who could actually buy it?
It’s been well documented that older Americans past retirement age are dominating not just the political debate but also the economic and cultural debate in the U.S. At a time when "virtually all public resources" are going to seniors, is it a stretch to think that private resources will also be flowing to Baby Boomers and seniors as well? Dollars have a way of attracting more dollars.
Buzz-generating headlines about Baby Boomer entrepreneurs are more than just hype, they are the canary in the coalmine for a broad social transformation that is shifting power from the younger generation to their parents.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
Disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.