Who’s Smarter These Days: The Young or the Old?

By Tim Elmore

Last month, Janet called Rory into her office. She’s the department manager and Rory, a young professional, serves on her team. She did not appreciate his disrespect toward her when he questioned her authority and her decision in Monday’s meeting. Things came to a head when he walked out of her office before the issue was resolved. She was fuming.

Shortly after that, Janet and I spoke.

When she told me about this confrontation, she described Rory in familiar terms: He’s arrogant; he’s disrespectful; he has no idea the years she’s invested in the organization; he needs to pay his dues before he speaks up like that. People over age 40 have been saying things like this for thousands of years. In fact, Socrates said in 470 BC, “Children have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers. Children are now tyrants.” Later in the fourth century BC, Plato remarked: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders; they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions.”

Some things never change.

Rory, of course, had a fundamentally different perspective. He was attempting to improve their department and assumed Janet would appreciate that. He later quoted Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2007, famously said: “Young people are just smarter.”

While most who heard Zuckerberg’s comment chuckled, they all understood what he meant. He was describing the new world that young entrepreneurs and techies were creating. Truth be told, young people tend to jump on board with future trends more quickly than their elders. They seem to “get” where the world is going, hence they can appear smarter.

But is the vision of youth more valuable than decades of experience?

Ageism Never Dies
Mark Zuckerberg’s statement ignited a debate about the kinds of knowledge 21st century businesses need the most. Do they need the “veteran’s experience” or the “rookie’s smarts?” Journalist Tad Friend wrote an article in the New Yorker, called, “Why Ageism Never Gets Old.” In it, he discussed a change in the “age of authority” commenting that people gain authority earlier in their careers today because of the intuition they bring with them about culture:

“This sharp shift in the age of authority derives from increasingly rapid technological change. In the 1920s, an engineer’s ‘half-life’ of knowledge—the time it took for half of his expertise to become obsolete—was thirty-five years. In the 1960s, it was a decade. Now it’s five years at most, and, for software engineers, it’s less than three. Traditionally, you needed decades in coding or engineering to launch a successful startup; William Shockley was forty-five when he established Fairchild Semiconductor, in 1955. But change begets faster change; Larry Page and Sergey Brin were twenty-five when they started Google, in 1998. Mark Zuckerberg was nineteen when he created Facebook, in 2004.”

Could Mark Zuckerberg be right—that young people are just smarter these days?

Our shifting society has sparked tension between generations at work. Our problem is we’ve failed to recognize the value each generation brings to the team. We’ve assumed that if one generation possesses valued expertise, the other cannot. The fact is each generation brings strengths to a team, and they’re different from the others. Our job is to capitalize on each one. Mark Zuckerberg later learned that older folks like Sheryl Sandberg have much value to add.

Different Kinds of Smarts
Truth be told, psychologist Raymond Cattell discovered intriguing insights over fifty years ago. He posited there are two kinds of intelligence and people tend to be stronger in one kind during their first thirty years, then stronger in the second kind in their next thirty years. Take a look at the value of each one:

Fluid Intelligence Crystallized Intelligence






Arthur Brooks, a social scientist at the Harvard Business School says, “When you’re young, you have raw smarts. When you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts. When you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.”

We must bring out the best in each team member, knowing everyone is smart in different ways.

Good news: We now have an event that covers this topic for school campuses, as well as a new book coming out October 25th, entitled: A New Kind of Diversity: Making the Different Generations on Your Team a Competitive Advantage. If you are a current partner of Growing Leaders and you are interested in hosting A New Kind of Diversity Event, please email [email protected]. If you are not, please complete this registration form (have the link directly to the intake form). To pre-order the book, visit: NewDiversityBook.com.


Who’s Smarter These Days: The Young or the Old?