Does Creativity Fade With Age?

It’s nice to believe that you are never too old to pursue your creative passions, but is this actually the case?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker published their list of the 20 best writers under 40. The list is typically thought of as an assessment of which young writers will be the most influential in the years to come, but it ended up setting off a slightly tangential debate among bloggers and journalists at the New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications about the effect aging has on creativity. Do writers actually peak at a young age, and if so, have the writers on this list already put out their best work?

Now, of course, the question itself must be taken with a grain of salt, given that it requires us to lump all creative-minded people together and generalize about what makes them tick. That said, the journalists did present some compelling anecdotes and studies that shed light on the nature of creativity.

On the one hand, there is the argument from Sam Tanenhaus in the Times that writers often peak when they’re young. He listed off many great writers like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hemingway and Kafka who all wrote what are arguably their best works before the age of 35. He concedes that there are examples of writers hitting their stride in later years, but ultimately he concludes that “writers in their youth generally have more direct access to childhood, with its freshets of sensation and revelation. What comes later — technical refinement, command of the literary tradition, deeper understanding of the human condition — may yield different results but not always richer or more artful ones.”

Then there is the more nuanced argument put forth by Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, which breaks down how age affects creativity for writers compared to other professions. Lehrer cites a study from a psychologist at UC Davis. This study “found that poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age.” According to Lehrer, those who pursue a field that is more “loosely defined” and requires a bit more trial and error are more likely to peak at a later age. Apparently, novelists fit more into this category than poets, who “peak early and fade quick.”

Obviously, there are plenty of counter-examples. Grandma Moses first rose to prominence as a painter in her late 70’s, Stanley Kunitz continued writing great poetry until he died at 100 years old and writers like Don DeLillo and Philip Roth continue to put out influential novels in their old age. But are these just exceptions to the norm?


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