Age and scientific genius

By Paul Walker 11/02/2014


Just to make those in “middle age” feel better, entrepreneurial creativity may peak at middle age rather than in early age. It is commonly argued that successful technology companies are founded by people in their 20s, but are people really more creative early on?

A new NBER working paper by Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce Weinberg looks at the relationship between age and scientific creativity. The paper discusses the widely accepted empirical finding that scientific creativity — measured by high-profile scientific contributions such as Nobel Prizes — tends to peak in middle age. They also review more recent research on variation in creativity life cycles across fields and over time. Jones, for example, has observed that the median age of Nobel laureates has increased over the 20th century, which he attributes to the rapid growth in the body of accumulated knowledge one must master before making a breakthrough scientific contribution (the “burden of knowledge” thesis).

So “old” doesn’t mean non-creative.

Age and Scientific Genius
Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, Bruce A. Weinberg
NBER Working Paper No. 19866
Issued in January 2014
NBER Program(s): LS

Great scientific output typically peaks in middle age. A classic literature has emphasized comparisons across fields in the age of peak performance. More recent work highlights large underlying variation in age and creativity patterns, where the average age of great scientific contributions has risen substantially since the early 20th Century and some scientists make pioneering contributions much earlier or later in their life-cycle than others. We review these literatures and show how the nexus between age and great scientific insight can inform the nature of creativity, the mechanisms of scientific progress, and the design of institutions that support scientists, while providing further insights about the implications of aging populations, education policies, and economic growth.

(HT: Organizations and Markets.)