In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg said ‘young people are just smarter’ – but was he right? 

By  Henry Rose Lee

In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg said 'young people are just smarter' - but was he right?

Over a decade ago, when Mark Zuckerberg – founder of Facebook – was 23, he made a statement “young people are just smarter”.  I’m not mad at him for saying that – just intrigued.

Look at things from his point of view. He launched his company with his Harvard University roommate, Eduardo Saverin, in 2003, when he was only 19. That’s nothing, if not amazingly smart! Even if his statement comes across as a big-headed – it’s still a brilliant achievement. Like it, or hate it, Facebook has gone on to change millions – if not billions – of lives.

The original company – known as FaceMash – was a masterful combination of creative thinking, technology and innovation. And it worked – and still works well today. As Zuckerberg positions Facebook: “Together is where our world gets better, that’s why we keep building. Because this journey is still unfinished. Because our relationships are what matter most to us. That’s how we find meaning, and find our place in the world.”

I’m not here to argue whether Facebook is good or bad, or whether it is problematic around issues of data piracy or privacy. I’m here as an observer, and Zuckerberg is a visionary – whether or not you think he uses his powers for good or evil.

And that’s the challenge of innovation versus status quo; and it’s also the challenge of youth versus age. To some, an innovation is the devil’s work. To others it’s the light and brilliance of a future, better world.

And, at different points in our lives, we may well want a bit of both; the daring and excitement of the totally new, the never-been-done before. And the comfort and anchoring of structure, process and same-old-same-old. Wanting the shock of the new often happens when we are young – possibly because we are not fettered by the pain of cock-ups or failures or risk factors.

An old French expression sums up how many people see younger and older people. “Si jeunesse savait, si veillesse pouvait” If youth only knew, and if old age only could! But surely it’s not that black and white or that simplistic?

According to Carl Honore, author of “Bolder – Making the Most of our longer lives” history is littered with young inventors. Peter Chilvers invented the first wind-surfing board at 12. Horatio Adams invented bubble-gum at 13, Louis Braille invented his reading system for the blind at 15, Blaise Pascale built the first mechanical calculator at 19. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein at 20. J K Rowling came up with the first Harry Potter stories in her 20s.

But there is no evidence to prove that innovation stops after the age of 30. As Honore explains “human beings can be creative at any age”. Art, music, technology – every walk of life has its older brilliance. Picasso carried on painting and having exhibitions until he died at 91. Benjamin Franklin was 74 when he invented bifocals and Thomas Edison filed patents until his death at 84. John Williams, the famous composer of famous film music such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and still composing successfully in his 80s.

Some people might say that Baby Boomers (aged early 50s to early 70s) are smarter than younger people because of their life experience. They have higher emotional intelligence (which can be taught, but usually comes with age), and they know how to add strategy, structure and stability to an innovation. Many people ignore the fact that, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google in 1998, they quickly bagged themselves a Baby Boomer CEO in the form of Eric Schmidt – who worked with them from 2001 to 2017.

And, as they are forced to retire in their 60s, or want to move on from corporate life, Boomers are reinventing themselves and becoming increasingly entrepreneurial in large numbers.

A 2015 Gallup survey confirmed, people over 50 were among the fastest-growing groups of new entrepreneurs in the United States (about twice that of millennials).

Some people might say that Generation X (aged late 30s to early 50s) are smarter than younger or older people. They have more experience, knowledge and skills than Millennials or Gen Z, because they have been alive for longer. And they have started to increase their emotional intelligence (which some believe will start to increase exponentially from the age of around 40 years old). And they still more physical and emotional muscle to go out there and grab life – whilst Boomers are literally starting to age. And it’s true that – as we age – the body becomes stiffer and slightly slower. But here are Gen X in the prime of life. And what a generation! What achievements! The Google boys are Gen X-ers. And, from Amy Poehler to Jay Z (comedy and music), to J K Rowling (writing books, films, plays and TV programmes), the arts and commerce are full of highly influential individuals, who flood our world with their powerful outputs that continue to change our lives. Examples are trailblazers such as Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon), and Justin Hall (believed to have pioneered blogging with his first “personal homepage in 1994), who’ve played a huge role in shaping our purchasing and working habits today.

And, as for our youngest generations, whether Millennials, Gen Z or Gen Alpha, some people might argue that they’re the smartest generation ever!

But IQ levels are falling.

Scientists in Norway analysed the scores of 730,00 young men taking IQ tests from 1970 – 2009. And what they found was for a few years, scores rose by about 0.3 points a year until 1975 when they peaked.

After that they started to fall at a rate of around seven points per generation.

Most millennials and those younger have grown up with technology, and have an inbuilt ability to work intuitively with all forms of tech gadgets and software. They have access to more information every day, than their older counterparts got in a lifetime. And the speed of innovation, change, novelty and variety is now so break-neck that they’ve developed lightning-speed responses – such as texting – and are the most tolerant, adaptable and flexible humans there have ever been.

LGBTQ+ could not have got any traction without younger people talking about, and accepting all genders. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are only now getting going in earnest, due to the demands of our youngest workers and employees. Some older people see the young as entitled, feckless or even lazy but that’s because they don’t understand their world, and their lens. And from the viewpoint of a person under 30, the oldies have ruined the planet and worshiped at the altar of greed and personal gain. How d’you like them apples?!!

Young people today are into smart, wearable tech, streaming networks, and an app for everything, including education. They can be self-taught, learning what they want through YouTube, (video is not the number 1 type of Google search), and curating and sharing information when they find something cool that works well and helps others.

Into the freemium economy and the support of others, Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are more multi-culturally diverse, and more socially aware and psychologically accepting than any previous generation. And they continue to innovate and influence our lives.

Here are just three examples:

  1. Malala Yousafzi, born 1997. She is a Pakistani activist for female education, she was shot in the head on the way to school at the age of 15, for wanting girls in northwest Pakistan to have education – something banned by the local Taliban. As she puts it “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
  2. Ed Sheeran, born 1991. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, record producer and actor, he is one of the world’s leading artists, with two of his albums in the list of the best-selling albums in UK chart history. Still way under 30, he crosses the divide of age and is loved by people of all generations.
  3. Bishop Curry from Texas is not even a teenager, and he has invented a gadget called the Oasis – that could save the lives of young children accidentally left in hot cars. The schoolboy came up with the idea after he saw a news flash about a child who died near where he lives under these circumstances. He has developed a device, which is a small box with air ducts that blow cool air when it becomes too hot inside a car and an antenna that alerts parents and emergency services. Local crowd-funding has raised money for the development, and a patent is underway.

So does all this prove that young people are best?

No, it’s all too simplistic. We cannot say that younger are just smarter. Nor can we say that younger or older people are better or worse. As the world changes, and technology advances, of course, each generation will develop and transition in ways that are different from previous generations. But it’s wrong to fixate on the differences between generations. We are all human. We will all be born, grow, fade and die – that’s part of the life-cycle story we all share. So – message to Mark Zuckerberg as follows:

Each generation is not necessarily smarter. And – whether it’s art or commerce, design or business, every generation has its brilliance and every generation has its strengths.

Here’s what I want to say: “People are people. We all matter and we all have value.”

About the author

Henry Rose Lee

Henry is a recognised authority on Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers in the workplace. She helps businesses to recruit, engage and retain their younger employees, and helps individuals to ignite their talents and carve out an outstanding career, whatever their age.

Through her keynote speeches, workshops and coaching, you will understand the evolution of leadership in what is sometimes called ‘the Shift Age’, so you can avoid common pitfalls and help your organisation (and yourself) to thrive.

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