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Do We Become Less Creative as We Age?

Updated on March 17, 2016
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.

Statue of Leonardo Da Vinci  (Amboise, France)
Statue of Leonardo Da Vinci (Amboise, France)

What is Creativity?

As defined by Dictionary.com, creativity is ‘the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.’ All of which, I would add, may be useful in solving a variety of problems both theoretical and practical.

This simple definition will do for a start; what concerns me here more specifically is the question of whether human creativity changes as we progress from early to late adulthood, and if so, how.

 Self Portrait of young  Rembrandt
Self Portrait of young Rembrandt

How Can Age-Related Changes in Creativity Be Studied?

This question has been addressed in terms of two major approaches.

The first one, adopted by most empirical psychologists, assumes that creativity is NOT to be regarded – as some scholars do – as a mysterious and quasi-mystical potential of the human mind, available only – and infrequently at that - to a few exceptionally gifted individuals. Rather, most cognitive psychologist regard creativity as general human ability which, like intelligence or memory, is possessed by every member of our species, albeit in widely differing amounts.

Accordingly, researchers have developed tests that measure creativity in the general population, just as was done more or less successfully for intelligence and memory. These tests can be administered to representative samples of our population: say, to three samples of peoples in their twenties, in their forties, and in their seventies. The next step is to determine whether these groups differ in their ability to solve the problems presented by these tests. Upon obtaining average scores for the young, the middle aged, and the older group, researchers can then establish whether the differences between these scores, if any, are statistically significant. If they chose their samples properly, used valid and reliable tests, and appropriate research designs, they can trust their results and extrapolate them to the general population from which the samples were taken.

Another line of research focuses instead on the study of individuals involved in explicitly creative endeavors, and especially of the more eminent among them. Accordingly, this research relies upon the analysis of the creative output of these individuals throughout their lifelong career.

Let us take a look at the results of both types of research, beginning with the one outlined last.

Self Portrait of Rembrandt in Middle Age
Self Portrait of Rembrandt in Middle Age

Does the Amount of Creative Activity Change with Age?

Within the more intellectually creative professions, a relatively straightforward way to measure age related changes in creativity is by determining whether the amount of creative output varies with age: whether, that is, creators produce more or less as they get older.

Overall, if one plots creative output in general as a function of age, productivity in adulthood (starting around age 20) rises fairly rapidly to a definite peak and thereafter declines gradually until the output is about half the rate at the peak. But this generalization has to be qualified: for the average age of the productive peak, and the size of the post-peak decline, vary substantially depending on the area of creative endeavor.

At one end, some fields (e.g. poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics) show early peaks, around the late 20s to early 30s. The output rate declines steeply thereafter, eventually falling in old age to less than one-quarter of the maximum.

At the opposite end, some fields (e.g., prose fiction, history, philosophy, academic scholarship) show a slow rise to a comparatively late peak in the late 40s or even 50s, with a small drop-off afterward.

Yet other fields (e.g., geology, biology, psychology) show age curves between these two extremes, with a maximum output rate around age 40 and moderate decline thereafter, output in the last years being half the rate of the peak years. The reasons for these differences are quite complex and cannot be briefly discussed here.

Importantly, inter-individual differences in lifetime output are substantial. In particular, a small percentage of creative workers in any given domain is responsible for the bulk of the work in their field.

Self Portrait of Rembrandt in Old Age
Self Portrait of Rembrandt in Old Age

Does the Quality of Creativity Change with Age?

As noted, the amount of creative work in the arts, the sciences and other academic disciplines overall declines significantly as we get older. But this result only captures the quantitative aspects of creativity. What about the quality of the creative output? Could it be for that, as they get older, creative individuals produce less, but the quality of their work improves, so that in a sense they trade quantity for quality?

One way to address this question is by calculating the age curves separately for major creative works and for minor creative works, and by comparing them. It turns out that the resulting curves are basically identical. This means that those periods in a creator’s life that result in the highest number of masterpieces also see the highest number of mediocre works, and viceversa. In sum: overall, creators do NOT trade quantity for quantity as they get older.

Note however that the fact that as eminent creators get older the overall quality of their creative production does not increase over the earlier years, does not imply that it does not change. Some research suggests that, especially within the arts, creative works acquire distinctive characteristics not possessed by earlier works, which are sometimes referred to as the 'late style'. This is a very interesting topic, which cannot be pursued further here.

So far I have briefly reviewed some results of the research on individuals whose whole life is centered upon creative endeavors. What about age related changes in creativity in the general population?

As noted earlier, the latter line of research is rests upon the administration of psychometric tests of creativity to representative samples of individuals of different age. Overall, the evidence gathered by this approach suggests fairly consistently that in the general population creativity declines both quantitatively and qualitatively as we get increasingly older.

The Stages of Life by Bartolomeus Angelicus
The Stages of Life by Bartolomeus Angelicus

Concluding Remarks

In sum, then, both approaches to the study of age related changes in creativity tend to converge toward the conclusion that, both among contributors in the more creative endeavors, and among the general population, creativity does decline quantitatively with age, although in significantly different ways depending upon the domain in which creativity is exerted.

It is definitely more difficult to both measure and assess qualitative changes in creativity as a function of age. As noted, some research suggests that creativity tends to decline with age within the general population. On the other hand, some studies of eminent creators suggest that, rather than declining, the quality of their creative accomplishments changes with age, thus reflecting the different concerns that occupy people at different points in their life course.

It is quite possible that something not altogether different may be happening in the general population. More specifically, it may be the case that as we get older, and for a number of reasons including health, declining sensory abilities, changing interests, greater amount of spare time and so on, we come to express our undiminished creativity in areas other than those that occupied us when younger, and which may no longer interest us - or be no longer suitable due to some of the limitations brought about by age. Standard psychometric tests of creativity are not designed to capture these changes, and might therefore inadvertently support the view of a qualitative decline in creativity which masks instead a shift in the way in which creativity is expressed in the later years.

Comments, especially based upon personal experience are very welcome!!

© 2016 John Paul Quester

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