You’re never too old to be a genius

Aging genius.
Aging genius.
Image: AP Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Nobel prize season is always exciting and humbling for economists. It is wonderful to see great research honored. But it is also a little depressing because it is a stark reminder of how unproductive your youth probably was. Prizes often aren’t awarded until the winner is in their 50s or 60s, but it is usually for decades-old research. You’ll know if you are a contender by age 35, because if you are destined for greatness, odds are you’ve already written a prize-winning paper.

In many intellectual fields, art, physics, mathematics, there exists a perception that your best works happens when you are young. Issac Newton and Albert Einstein did their great work in their 20s, as did Richard Feynman. Or take one of prize winners this week, Paul Romer, who published his first big paper on growth at 30, based on work he did as a graduate student.

There is some science to support this idea. Fluid intelligence—thinking quickly and recalling information—is thought to peak in our 20s and slowly decline. But crystallized intelligence, the accumulation of facts and knowledge, improves with age. As we age, we aren’t as sharp as we once were, but we are wiser. Perhaps we need that fluid intelligence to come up with and execute great research and creativity. Or maybe too much wisdom holds us back from innovation and trying something new.

More recent research, from then-psychology graduates students at Harvard, suggests it is not so simple. Some types of fluid intelligence peak early. Raw processing speed, ie. how quickly we do a mental task, reaches its greatest potential around 18 or 19, but we don’t master other abilities, like reading emotional states, until our 40s or 50s. As we age, we combine our changing fluid intelligence with our increased wisdom. As a result, we are not our smartest selves at any one age; we excel in different areas at various points in our lives. The researchers estimated we are best at facial recognition before 20. But many other tasks that involve thinking and knowledge peak in middle age. It turns out you are best at solving arithmetic problems and comprehension in your 40s and into your 50s.

So why aren’t more middle-age researchers publishing ground-breaking research? It could be incentives. In academia there exists pressure to publish major papers before 40 in order to get tenure. Younger people also have more time and energy to focus on research, which tends to be isolating and all-consuming, before the onset of pressures of family and academia’s administrative responsibilities. As Romer aged, he continued to publish, but diversified his work. He put his research ideas into action in an attempt to spur economic development and reduce poverty. He took on leadership roles in policy. Perhaps he still has more Nobel-winning ideas in him, but it appears he’d rather do more applied work (which does not win prizes) and take on different challenges.

Plenty of intellectuals do some of their best work after 50. Benjamin Franklin was a prolific inventor well into old age. Physicist John Wheeler, who coined the term “black hole,” developed influential theories when he was in his 70s. And we may see more great research coming from older scientists in the future. We have more knowledge and tools than ever before, which means it takes longer to reach the research frontier, let alone push it forward.  Physics was once dominated by younger minds, but no longer, as an older generation is leading the way, said Leonard Susskind, the theoretical physicist behind string theory.

In a 2006 paper analyzing the ages of Nobel winners, economists Bruce Weinberg and David Galenson suggested that the most significant conceptual breakthroughs come from younger minds, but the best work that requires experimentation comes later in life, as the accumulation of knowledge begins to pay dividends. “This difference in the impact of experience on the two different types of innovator may explain why some great scholars are most creative early in their careers, and others late,” they wrote.

Romer’s co-winner, William Nordhaus, continues to do cutting-edge research. He was a little older, in his mid-30s when he first published a paper on the impact of climate on growth. Nordhaus has continued to update his  economic models and develop new techniques throughout his career.

Perhaps our most creative days are still ahead of us. Or maybe we still have the potential, and just chose to do something else.