An upside to aging: You may be getting more creative, too

The presumed correlation between youth and innovation is a myth, author argues


Many people assume creativity and ability to innovate wane with age—but research suggests that it is just the opposite, Pagan Kennedy writes for the New York Times.

The presumed correlation between youth and creativity is a commonly held belief, Kennedy writes. For instance, she writes that when John Goodenough, a 94-year-old professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first tried to study physics at the University of Chicago at age 23, "a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field."

But at age 57, Goodenough co-invented the lithium-ion battery, a massive advance in energy storage technology and a critical component in everything from long-range electric cars to smartphones. Recently, he filed another patent with his team for a new solid-state battery that, "if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight, and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles."

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And research supports that wisdom comes with age, Kennedy writes. She cites a 2009 study of U.S. patent holders by professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Hitotsubashi University in Japan that found that 47 is the average age an inventor sends their application to the patent office—and people submit the highest value patents after the age of 55.

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Another study that looked at Nobel Prize winners in physics found that they made their discoveries, on average, at age 50—and that the age for peak creativity among the winners appears to be getting higher each year, Kennedy writes. And research from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation suggests inventors' creativity peaks in their late 40s and that they are most productive during the latter part of their careers.

Innovating at 94

Goodenough says age and experience have made him a better inventor. "I'm old enough to know you can't close your mind to new ideas," he told Kennedy. "You have to test out every possibility if you want something new."

And according to Goodenough, age has also helped him gain a range of experience across disciplines—even outside the sciences—that inform his work. Kennedy explains, "Goodenough started in physics and hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also keeping his eye on the social and political trends that could drive a green economy."

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It's that long "crawl" which Goodenough said has kept his mind open and versatile. "You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together," he said. "I'm grateful for the doors that have been opened to me in different periods of my life."

And seniority has its perks, he joked; "You no longer worry about keeping your job."

Despite these facts ageism is still socially condoned in the workplace. Reports of ageism increased 44% from 1999 to 2014.

The tech industry in particular can be unkind to older job-seekers, as companies are constantly searching for younger talent. It's a demanding field, and employers often falsely believe that an older person with a family won't be able to keep up with the latest trends (Kennedy, New York Times, 4/7).

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