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