Can you be a ‘whizz-kid’ at 50?

Posted on February 16, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Silicon Valley on a map of the USA

There were times when I used to think – and feel despair – that the whole world believed that in order to be a whizz-kid, you just had to be under 35. At least, that’s how the media made me feel.  It seemed more likely that the latest Booker Prize winner would have just graduated (with an Oxbridge First of course) than be a writer who’d been around the block a few times. And, when Caitlin Moran got a Melody Maker column aged 16, I thought I might just give up writing. But, I didn’t!

And, I’m so glad, because now my time has come! As it has for quite a few other over 50s, particularly in Silicon Valley, which I think of as Tir na Nog. In my culture, this is the ‘Land of the Young’, a supernatural place where those who enter have everlasting youth, beauty, health and an abundance of joy. I feel sure that also describes people who work for Google and Facebook.

The world’s oldest designer

But, enter Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind, who at the age of 91 is probably one of the oldest persons working in Silicon Valley and not just one of its oldest designers. Barbara works for IDEO, a global design company. In 2013, she watched the company’s founder David Kelley talk on the show ’60 Minutes’ about the ‘importance of cultivating a diversity of experience among team members’. So, she contacted him, explained her expertise in occupational therapy and offered to work for them designing for an ageing population. And do you know what? She got the job!

To be fair, she does come with impressive credentials: she was a major in the U.S. Army, founded the Princeton Centre for Learning Disorders, has written a clinical textbook and been awarded honours for her innovative therapeutic techniques. Still, IDEO could have ignored her, but to their credit they gave her a job in its Bay Area offices and she’s working on client projects related to contact lenses, health care delivery and retirement home services. But not everyone sees value in the mature mind.

What Mark Zuckerberg thinks

Well, I don’t know what he thinks about Barbara, but I do know that he said this: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.” And then he uses chess champions as evidence that he’s right; because the current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen is only 24. Well, I have something to tell you Mr Zuckerberg; only 7 per cent of inventors have any success before the age of 26, according to Benjamin Jones in his book “Age and Great Invention”. He also says that 54 per cent of successful inventions come from people over 40. So there! Plus, Jones’ research shows that better achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. I suppose that means we’re maintaining brain power for longer than our ancestors. So, who else is over 50 and moving and shaking the world where youth usually rules?


A mature woman drawing a new design_715x215

John Goodenough

He’s certainly well named, and at 92 he’s still busy working on new ideas. He’s the man who in 1980 invented and developed the lithium battery. That’s only 35 years ago, when John was a mere lad of 57. His invention was critical to the development of rechargeable battery systems, and you know what we need those for? Yes, mobile phones, tablets and laptops. We’d be powerless without John.

Currently, he has an office at the University of Texas that he goes to every day to work on the development of a “super battery for electric cars”, because as he says: “They need to compete price-wise with gas guzzlers.” He fears that we are heading for wars over oil reserves if we don’t turn to battery power. Plus, he added: “I’m only 92 – I still have time to go.” Good for you John, I hope I have your get-up-and-go if I reach your age.

Lonnie G. Johnson

Lonnie, who is 65 this year, is the man who gave our children (and many adults) hours of fun with his invention the super soaker water gun back in 1990. Now he’s working on more serious projects involving efficient renewable energy sources. His company Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems produced an electro converter in 2009 that was listed in the Top 10 inventions for that year.

There is also Ajay Batt (aged 58) who is the co-inventor of the USB drive, which allows us to do so much more with our computers, and Kia Silverbrook (aged 57) whose inventions include the cutting edge 3D printing. Technology may not be an arena where I could ever hope to shine at any age, but I’m jolly glad that there are people like Barbara, John, Lonnie, Ajay and Kia who are showing the youngsters that older brains can still produce bright, new ideas.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.