David Brooks, 56, says his peers “seem clueless” about how to change the world. He’s betting on those under 40. There’s a lot of evidence that’s a strategic bet.
In an op-ed piece last November, David Brooks made a provocative claim. “Many people my age and above seem clueless.” He goes on to say they do not know how to address our immense social problems. “They have trouble thinking about our shared social and moral formative institutions and how such institutions could be reconstituted.”
Brooks has not lost hope, however. “In my experience, most people under 40 get this. They sense the social and moral void at the core of contemporary capitalism.” Brooks is betting they can “restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.” That’s a strategic bet, as young people have historically been more willing to shift paradigms and change societies.
The most prominent members of the Clapham Sect were under 40. They addressed the immense social problem of the day—the English Slave Trade. They thought institutions. When William Wilberforce joined the Clapham Sect in 1786, he was 26, as was Charles Simeon. Henry Thornton, a close friend of Wilberforce, was a year younger. Zachary Macauley was 10 years younger than Wilberforce in 1786. Other Clapham members included Edward Eliot, who was 28 years old in 1786, as was Thomas Gisborne and James Stephens. Charles Grant was 30. Lord Teignmouth was 35. Hannah More (she founded 800 schools) was 40. Granville Sharp was an “oldster”—53.
Young people are generally the innovators according to Everett Rogers, author of the landmark 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers surveyed how the innovation process spreads across societies. It starts with innovators (2.5 percent of a population), usually young people working on the frontiers of an idea or technology. Early Adopters (13.5 percent) are the first to adopt innovations. They tend to be opinion leaders and are typically younger in age with strong social networks. After a varying degree of time, older people (Early Majority) adopt an innovation. It becomes diffused across society.
The sons of Judah made a major impact on Babylon during the Babylonian exile. They were probably in their teens. They alone recognized the exile. Older Judeans lived in denial. The sons of Judah helped King Nebuchadnezzar make a paradigm shift.
Paradigm shifts are generally a young person’s game. In the 1980s, researchers at Harvard discovered that our paradigms are pliable until early to mid-childhood—at the latest, age 20. Then they stabilize and remain relatively consistent throughout life. After age 20, only 20 percent of adults ever experience a paradigm shift. And they only achieve this only through a very disruptive process.
Thomas Kuhn described this process in his 1961 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He coined the term “paradigm shift.” The shift is disruptive because it rips apart old frameworks (i.e., paradigms). We tend to cling to cherished beliefs, even if a new framework is correct. The older we are, the more we’re invested in the old paradigm. Younger people are less invested and more likely to make a shift.
It’s a curious fact that Kuhn drew the idea of paradigm shift from studying Christian conversion. Coming to faith involves a repudiation of the old, repentance (turning away from the old), and embrace of the new. This may explain why a substantial majority of those who embrace Christ do so before reaching their 18th birthday.
This is why betting on those under 40 is a strategic bet. But what if you’re over 40?
Invest in young leaders, but be strategic. Invest in those building networks aligning with proven frameworks for changing the world (there are at least 17). Invest in those who want to reconstitute capitalism, returning to its roots. Invest in those who want to renew the Western church, returning to her ancient roots. For those of us over 40, we can offer two resources—wealth and wisdom. In my opinion, investing these resources in younger leaders who are building strategic networks would be a strategic bet.