The lack of hierarchical structure of the startup world has rendered the traditional top bottom approach of the corporate world out of date. The manager could be twenty years younger than his or her employee. The founders and the C suit could be filled by fresh-faced leaders in their twenties barely out of college. This phenomenon begs the question: what is the demise of the traditionally held positive correlation between age and wisdom in this fast paced world driven by technology and constant change?
A few days ago, one of my interns remarked that she felt weird that she is working for someone who is younger than her. My co-founder and business partner pointed out that he has a good 10 years on me and that she better get used to the age disparity- it is happening everywhere.
Indeed the age hierarchy is no longer obstinately equated to wisdom and intelligence. Youths, as defined by people aged 15-30, such as Mark Zuckerberg (20 when he founded Facebook), Bill Gates (20 when he started Microsoft), Adora Svitek (14), and Ronan Farrow (24), are changing every facet of society, from international policies to the way we communicate with each other to the values we put on education. They- we- are defying expectations that have been traditionally placed on us. While we are still relatively inexperienced, we make up for it with our intelligence, hubris that propels us to try daring things and fresh firm belief that the world can be a better place. This mobilization has given us the flexibility to have friends who are much older or younger than us. My closest friends are 9 or 10 years older than me, for example. By having older or younger friends, we learn from their strengths of having more life experiences and they from our belief in the goodness of the world and humankind.
This trend is also popping up in developing countries, which are much more traditional in respect to elders and the importance of age. In many of these societies, which are predominantly comprised of under 30s, youths are frowned upon and stereotyped as troublemakers, loiters, and violence-starters. The youths in these often war- and violence-torn areas are sick of having adults who have a hard time relating to their problems (or have conflicting interests) and views speak for them with little success. With the help of technology and worldwide role models, they are taking matters into their own hands and forming organizations for youths by youths. One notable example is Le Parlement d’Enfants, or Children’s Parliament, a non-profit that works with displaced and disadvantaged children and youths in eastern Congo, one of the most violent and unstable regions in the world. They were started by two street orphans when they were 11 years old and have had some remarkable success in their work (Al-Jazeera documented the group in this video). Their ability to run an organization as preteens and their willingness to tackle an issue that goes against the military and to certain extent, the society of the DRC- sexual harassment, assault, and rape- speak volumes of the potential of our youths. Despite the fact that they have not had much formal education, without parents or family members to guide them, a lack of resources, and some age discrimination from the traditional Congolese society and NGO world, they are still making an impact, youth-to-youth and youth-for-youth.
The un-age hierarchy has even touched upon the traditionally very hierarchically structured industries: development economics, academia, consulting, and banking. The Fields Medal, Crains’ 40 Under 40 list, Time magazine’s extensive coverage of high potential youths, Forbes’ Most Powerful CEOs under 40, etc. are all proofs that age is slowly fading as a correlation tool to accomplishments and ambition.
In short, we are becoming an ageless society, even in the professional world. The old perception that age indicates experience, maturity, and wisdom will always be present due to mores and customs, but it is slowly disintegrating as high potential youths.