We all need an infusion of youthful vigour

First published in the Financial Times on 4th December 2012.

Europe cannot afford to become a theme park for ageing baby boomers

Once I was the youngest person in the room. Now, at 50 I’m often the oldest. This is good news. Organisations dominated by geriatrics tend not to prosper. Fresh blood must be injected regularly across any institution to maintain vigour and faith in the future.

Every business should involve 20- and 30-somethings at the top as a matter of policy. For example, a retailing friend has formed a “youth board” for his business. This comprises six of his brightest up-and-comers, who meet monthly to debate strategy and operations. Their role is to challenge the statutory directors and address the concerns and opportunities of customers under 40. Responsibility has been thrust on their shoulders and suddenly they are taking decisions and feeling empowered. This is how they will learn to handle authority and make a difference.

Currently, those over 50 own virtually all the assets in western society and control almost all the levers of power. Meanwhile, across much of Europe more than a quarter of young people are unemployed. They feel disenfranchised and demoralised. But talent on that scale cannot be allowed to go to waste – or we risk intergenerational conflict.

The disruption tearing across companies and institutions in every field means the old rules no longer apply. Those senior managers who have comfortably navigated the past few decades are finding it impossible to adjust their thinking. Industries such as retailing, travel, finance and media are facing wholesale reinvention or irresistible decline. Much of the established hierarchy is falling apart.

Part of the reason I enjoy the hospitality sector and the start-up scene is that both are full of young go-getters who have taken charge. Many restaurant managers are in their 20s and lead teams of as many as 30, running a multimillion-pound operation. The same is true of high-tech entrepreneurs.

So why young people?

  • They understand technology better. The young are vastly more engaged with the online world. They know how to market, recruit, procure, research, analyse and facilitate using computing power. They live digitally and see the internet’s potential in a way that traditionalists cannot.
  • They are more optimistic. There is less cynicism and bitterness among the young. As Joseph Conrad wrote: “I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men.”
  • They have energy. Pulling all-nighters among start-ups with 20-something founders is standard practice. They tend not to have the family commitments and the sense of entitlement of those who have slogged away for decades.
  • They are flexible. Perhaps through compulsion, perhaps because this is an age of improvisation, these upstarts know classic conformism won’t work any more. This is a dynamic and diverse time – tired networks and prejudices are history.
  • They represent creative destruction. Globalisation, recession and the digital revolution mean Joseph Schumpeter’s dictum – in which new ideas and practices continually challenge and displace old ones – is truer than ever. Someone at the start of their career is built to embrace this whirlwind of change.

They may lack wisdom, but as Francis Bacon said, “Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than settled business.”

Europe cannot afford to become a theme park for ageing baby boomers, obsessed by nostalgia, dreaming of glory days. Countries such as Italy and Japan are ruled by cadres of old men who cling to power and wealth like grim death. Outdated structures and cultures must adapt – those that resist are condemned to decay. Greedy sexagenarians such as the Rolling Stones should leave the stage and let some newcomers grab the limelight – after all, their best song, Paint It Black, was recorded 46 years ago.

I would like to see more collaboration between the generations. The old should mentor the young, and take a risk by promoting them early. Experience matters, but so does vitality and imagination. Partnering with those who are much younger makes compelling sense: they are the inheritors, and will be around when we have all retired or died.