Friday, May 30, 2008

You are too old to be creative ....

In the last few weeks, on three separate occasions, I've come face to face with ageism and the concept that "only the young are creative".

The combination of starting a new career and closing in on my 40th birthday has made me more aware of how widespread and blatant ageism is. There is an often repeated meme that the older are more conservative, uncreative and less dynamic than the young. This meme is everywhere from advertising to marketing and even to job adverts. We are even told that the old just want to be seen as "Young at Heart".

Whilst it is true that the "average" 15 year old will have more creative ideas in their lifetime than the "average" 65 year old, this is simply because they have longer to live. Using the same logic you could argue that the young are more environmentally unfriendly than the old as they will travel, pollute and waste more. If you want to cut down environmental pollution from vehicles then raise the minimum driving age to 50.

Unsurprisingly the old have less time to live, on average, than the young. However, what matters here is how the rate of creativity changes with age and not how long you have got left to live.

Now in his book, "Age and Achievement", Lehman argued that the rate of creativity goes into rapid decline after the ages of 45-50 yrs. According to Lehman the peak of creative productivity varies with the tasks but in general your most creative years are in your 30s.

This is bad news for someone like myself. I feel doomed, I'm over the hill and I felt I was only just getting started - gasp!

Fortunately, in 2006, Harry R. Moody's book "Aging" pointed out that Lehman's treatment of longevity was rather creative and suffers a fundamental flaw which creates the distortion.

If you're going to look at the changing rate of creation for people over time, then simply following a group of scientists and looking at the number of papers they publish will always give you a decline over time i.e. your sample group of 500 scientists might publish 500 papers in total at age 25 but less than 250 papers at age 65. You might argue that the reason for this is due to a decline in creativity but that ignores the simple fact that most people tend to die as they get older whilst others retire. So it's a good idea to actually adjust results for the number of your sample group which are still living and active in the field.

Further reading reveals much more intelligently balanced investigations including :-
  • W.Dennis' 1966 study on "creative productivity between the ages of 20 and 80 years" shows that creators in their 60's and 70's will often generate new ideas at a rate exceeding those of the same creators in their 20's.
  • Simonton's 1988 study of "Age and outstanding achievement" shows that the average rate of output of a creator in their 70's is roughly 50% of the maximum peak found in their 30's and 40's.
So whilst I might be halfway through my creative peak, it looks as though it will take another 30 years for me to collapse back into the uncreative pit of my 20's. Whoot!

These are, of course, just average statistics and say nothing about the individual. Creativity never stops and as Moody points out, the chemist Chevreul took up the study of Gerontology in his 90s and published his first paper at 102.

Looks like old dogs can learn new tricks after all.

N.B. Before someone says that the software industry is a hotbed of creative young talent, the link between youth and software creativity is highly contentious. Our industry would appear to not only have what Tim Berners Lee called a 'stupid' male geek culture but one that also idolises youth.

N.B. As a final note, I would NOT be surprised if the mere existence of ageism does affect performance. The following study reports to show that "being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and thus, their ability to get ahead". Hence a lack of social mobility in society may well be self-reinforcing. I am curious as to whether a consequence of the act of ageism in society is in self-reinforcement through impairment of an affected person's performance.

-- Added 20th August 2013


phil jones said...

From my own experience, I'm convinced creativity can be "practiced" and the more you do, the better and more productive you get.

If you look at the physical strength of a 45 yr old, it probably varies a lot with whether they work out and keep themselves fit or not. Creativity is going to be the same. If you spent 30 yrs. not being creative, how would you know how to start? But if you were consistently trying to think of new idea during that time, you'll have lots of extra sources of inspiration (ie. all the attempts and failures) to work with.

On average, youngsters are probably more creative for the simple reason that they're more socially mobile. They meet new people more often (at college, shifting between early short-term jobs, travelling) and so get exposed to more new ideas.

For a lot of people, life in their 40s lacks that stimulus. You need to hold down a stable job, spend more time at home with your family etc. Your exposure to novelty drops considerably.

swardley said...

Hi Phil,

The evidence seems to indicate that the most creative years are in the 30's to 40's and whilst there is some decline in creativity in later years, Dennis showed that "creators in their 60's and 70's will often generate new ideas at a rate exceeding those of the same creators in their 20's."

"On average, youngsters are probably more creative for the simple reason that they're more socially mobile" - I have read no reputable research that suggests that youngsters are more creative, however it is a commonly repeated meme.

There is a risk that such a meme may create an inequality between the distribution of opportunity and ability (as in you're too old) and it may also adversely impact performance (causing reinforcement of the meme).

"For a lot of people, life in their 40s lacks that stimulus".

I find that as I approach my 40's I'm exposed to more people and ideas than ever before. However, I'm also exposed to more situations which seek to deny opportunity because of age.

I suspect that youngsters are probably seen to be more creative because they are not denied opportunities in the same way as when they are older. It has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with opportunity.

Ask any woman or any person from a poor social background. Do you really believe that the reason why the most successful business people in the UK have similar profiles and backgrounds has anything to do with natural ability.

Having been to a state school, studied at Cambridge and worked in business - I can state with some conviction that the brightest and best people that I have met are not to be found in academia or in business but working in crap jobs up and down the country. Had they been born to the right family, they'd be running the country rather than packing shelves.

We have an appalling lack of social mobility in the UK and it is based upon denial of opportunity. This is exactly what ageism is.

I have been denied access to certain academic funding on the basis of age, at 39 I'm too old. Whilst this is a minor inconvenience, ageism appears to become far more severe when I'm in my 50's and 60's.

There would appear to be an incredible waste of human capital. The average 50 year old has to offer 25 years of highly creative potential and the evidence suggests that they will be just a creative in their 70's as they were in their 20's.

Do we provide or deny them opportunities to exploit this potential?

friarminor said...

Hi, Simon.

I, too am nearing 40's. Dread to use the 'I'm too old for that' statement as a sweeping generalization of things I can or cannot do.

I think it is the mindset that is a big determinant on the practice of creativity. There is no dearth of opportunity, big or small to an open and imaginative mind.

That productive results - often measured by metrics of time and effort can also be a hindrance of sorts. I can still hear voices that give praise when accomplishing things in shorter span of time but creativity seems to not always work in those units of measure as it is like wild ridiculous thoughts - that society ,especially for those who aren't not so young anymore, is quick to put down.

jp said...

In my opinion those "youngsters" who are deemed creative are not bound by their past because they have little past that would impact potential creativity.
In older adults, creativity is enhanced by their past knowledge and the fact that they are not bound by limits imposed on life that 40-60 year olds have (like children!).

Ian W said...

I'm 55 and job hunting. One of my (now retired) bosses says there's a stereotype that folks less than 40 are underpaid for their capability and those 40+ usually overpaid. It's pretty difficult to even get an interview to disprove the thesis in my case; I'm energetic and keen to repeat the same business spectaculars as performed down my history.

In the meantime, I've gotten Linux certified up to the eyeballs and passed the MongoDB developer plus DBA exams with distinction. Reading like no tomorrow. But fast coming to the conclusion that setting up by myself is the only apparent route open now - outside of offering a free try and buy!