An “Innovation Gap”? Chasing the Spirit of Edison

Young people in America are increasingly qualified to follow in the great inventors footsteps–yet fewer think they’ll do so. A survey probes why.

Thomas Edison


A new survey reveals a potential “innovation gap” in America. The 2011 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index discovered, among other things, that while many young American women have the characteristics of inventors–creativity, an interest in science, and altruistic leanings–they nonetheless didn’t view themselves as “inventive.”

The study surveyed both men and women, aged 16-25, and offers in a way a snapshot of how our nation’s youth views innovation and invention. Though both men and women reported that they felt themselves to be “creative,” and that they saw creativity as linked with inventiveness, relatively few identified themselves as “inventive.” If “creativity” seems to lean toward the humanities, that clearly wasn’t the hang-up; the young men and women alike indicated a great interest in science and math, with 42% of the women identifying those fields as their favorite subjects, and over half the men agreeing.

As for what fields men and women were most interested in contributing to, there was mostly parity, with two exceptions: Men skewed toward the web, women toward medicine and health care.

Other findings of the study:

  • Most young people (61% of women, 54% of men) view Japan, not the U.S., as the leader in invention.
  • Young women and men alike advocate more government funding and school invention projects to spark interest in innovation.
  • More women appeared to be interested in the design and brainstorming phase of invention, while men took a greater interest in actually building or implementing an invention.
  • About a third of the young men and women viewed inventors as “people who most often work at home or in their garage.”

Of course, the particular words “invention” and “inventor” do conjure up, first and foremost, an image of Thomas Edison in his study–certainly for young people, to whom Edison is held up in class as a model of the inventive spirit. That the young men and women appeared to have misconceptions of what invention and innovation are like today may largely be a fault of the survey’s terminology.


But the survey resonates with one from late last year, which touched on similar themes with an even more highly trained population. A researcher surveyed postdocs in the Washington, DC, area, and found that only two out of 126 individuals listed an entrepreneurial track as their top choice. Even in the most highly trained in America, there appears to be a hesitance to taking the plunge into an Edison-like entrepreneurial track.

That young women, in particular, are tentative about this is troubling. A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research identified a “mommy divide,” wherein high-skilled women tended to see considerable wage decreases after child-bearing. Government, business, and the higher education community to work together to better incentivize innovation among young women–and to ensure that once they become highly trained, they aren’t punished simply for wanting to raise a family, too.

[Image: Flickr user gregory-moine]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal