Do We Really Become Less Innovative with Age?

I’ve always assumed that the most creative and innovative phase of life is the period in decade or two after formal education. We have lots of energy, fresh ideas and we are just a little bit overconfident in our abilities so we try ambitious things. It’s true that there are good examples of this, including Einstein, van Gogh and Steve Jobs and I’ve thought that the loss of creativity after 40 was related to the loss of brain cells as we age.

Well, if you are approaching middle age like me, the good news is that brain research is telling us new things about the aging process and what this means for creativity. The most important finding is that the brain can still develop with age, if we keep it stimulated. While the number of brain cells does decrease over time, an active mind will develop better connections so that the loss of cells is compensated. Creativity stays with us throughout life but the expression of that creativity tends to move into different stages.

Tim’s wife, Nancy, is a psychology lecturer whose main research interest is aging. A few weeks back she sent me a terrific article by Gene Cohen on creativity in the second half of life. Like my examples of creative people in the earlier stages of life, Cohen gives many well-known examples of people who’s main creative contributions occurred in the 40s or much later. Theater and film director George Abbott wrote and produced ‘Damn Yankees’ at the age of 68 but also collaborated on the Broadway revival at the age of 107!

According to Cohen, the latter half of life has developmental phases in the same way that we talk about the first half of life. The phase in the 40s and 50s tends to correspond to a re-evaluation of life and work through reflection and a consequent effort to create meaning. Madeline Albright relaunched her career after a bitter divorce and started teaching government at Georgetown University. She became highly respected for her knowledge and insight and eventually became the first woman to be Secretary of State at 60.

The 60s and 70s can be characterized as a phase of liberation. In many cases, people have retired or feel less constrained by expectations and the sense that they will be judged if they make a mistake. In the blog we write about the importance of experimentation and calculated risks. In the middle of a career we tend to be risk averse in case we fail and are left with the stigma for many years afterward. In the liberation phase of life, there is much less to lose and this is accompanied by a sense of “if not now, when?’. In his essay, Cohen gives the example of the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. Suddenly, the impossible prospect of peace seemed possible. The difference was that the key negotiators in the breakthrough were older. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was 71, Shimon Peres was 71, and Arafat was 64.

In our 70s and beyond we move into a ‘summing up’ phase that can also result in a creative burst of work and contribution. Summing up can involve a desire to give back through philanthropy and activism, but it can also involve a consideration of unfulfilled dreams. Guiseppe Verdi wrote his operatic masterpiece Falstaff at the age of 80 but this inspiration to do this was the failure of an opera that he had written at 25 that had had opened at the famous La Scala theater. Of course, Verdi insisted that Falstaff be performed at La Scala, the scene of his biggest career failure.

Understanding the way that creativity changes through life is important because we need to manage the aging profile of our workforce. I’m not sure, but the retirement age for me will probably be around 75 and there will be a lot more options to stay engaged with the workforce. Several weeks ago, Ralph Ohr wrote an excellent comment on this blog about the importance of understanding personalities and how these strengths can be used to play different roles in innovation. The same is true for the strengths in different types of creativity as we get older.

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling a lot better about turning 40 next year.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “Do We Really Become Less Innovative with Age?

  1. This is a great post, John. A lot of businesses as well as governments are becoming more aware of the immense potential of the ageing workforce as a positive to be harnessed rather than a negative to work around. The NSW Business Chamber has a nifty site discussing ageing workers, and particularly myths and the reality of older workers. It is at http://www.nswbusinesschamber.com.au/?content=/channels/Training_and_apprenticeships/Training_and_apprenticeships/Skills_shortage/the_benefits_of_an_ageing_workforce.xml

    -Nancy

  2. Great article and I have another angle on this topic. For me is our ability to combine experiences with an open mind and creativity the most important parts. When I was very young, now I am only young, age 51 :-) I had a lot of ideas but I couldn´t realize them since I lacked experiences for taking them further or most of all enough with self confidence to do it.

    With ref. to creativity I believe we are more open before our brains getting older and needs to nurture it for keeping and growing our creativity skills. For me has “to be innovative” much less to do with creativity than having competence and experience which I think your examples shows us. Madeleine Albright e.g. had a lot to do at home as a married woman taking care of a household etc.

    Knowledge and especially Wisdom and Common sense is very useful for being innovative. Definition of innovation, the latin word “innovare” – “renewal” is something else than creativity, “creare” – “creating”. Good idea/s taken further to innovations needs people with experiences and wisdom since we need to avoid playing God and come up with quick and “dirty” solutions only to please the market and business. Innovation is nowadays as a mantra but very few understand it´s depths and possibilities and it needs to be handled with care.

    We invent a lot as substitutes and forget sometimes the most important questions, what do we want to achieve with our inventions? If we could start with a Why? and go to the root cause for coming up with innovations and analyse the threats etc. before there would be much better innovations suitable for the humanity.

  3. Hi Nancy:

    thanks for the comment and the link to the NSW Chamber of Commerce site. I’m also thinking about how cognition changes with age so I have a few more questions for later.

    John

  4. Hi Christer:

    thanks for sharing these thoughts. I really like your angle on the combination of wisdom and creativity. The psychology folk have been doing some great research on the cognitive basis for wisdom and I might explore this in a future post.

    John

  5. Hi John,

    Thank for your comment! I am reading back sometimes and would like to know if you are going to explore the cognitive basis for wisdom? It sounds very interesting.

    Christer

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