The Age of Innovation

For not-so-surprising reasons, I’ve been thinking lately about lifecycles. My AFR op-ed today (partially written with a newborn babe in the crook of my arm) is on age and creativity. Full text over the fold.

Age No Bar to Brilliance, Australian Financial Review, 30 June 2009

Einstein’s major contributions to physics were published when he was aged 26. Mathematician Terence Tao won the Fields Medal (maths’ Nobel Prize) at age 31. ‘When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years’, quipped 37 year-old Tom Lehrer.

Yet at the other end of the lifecycle, examples abound. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum from ages 76 to 91. Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven at age 62. Paul Cézanne’s most valuable work was painted in the year of his death, aged 67.

Understanding the lifecycle of innovators is a puzzle with major implications for how we fund researchers and artists. Should we devote more towards early-career innovators, and risk wasting it on fizzling fireworks? Or is it better to look for established track records, at the risk of funding extinct volcanoes?

One researcher who has been studying the lifecycle of innovation across a variety of fields is University of Chicago economist David Galenson. Over more than a decade, Galenson and his co-authors have studied the careers of economists, poets, novelists, directors, architects, and artists. To identify the stars of each field, he gathers empirical data: rankings of ‘all time greats’, auction prices, prizes, citations, and even the number of times works appear in textbooks and anthologies.

Across a diverse set of fields, Galenson claims to have consistently identified two types of innovators: ‘conceptual’ innovators, whose work implements a single theory, and ‘experimental’ innovators, whose work evolves from real-life experience and empirical observation. Like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs (who relate the world to a single vision) and foxes (who pursue many ends), Galenson’s dichotomy can be applied across many fields of creative endeavour. And the recurring pattern seems to be that conceptual innovators do their best work at an earlier age than experimental innovators.

What marks a conceptualist from an experimentalist? In art, Galenson distinguishes conceptual artists (Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch) whose work aims to communicate specific ideas and emotions; from experimental artists (Edgar Degas, Wasily Kandinsky) whose ideas are vaguer, and often regard the artistic process as a journey.

Among architects, conceptualists are motivated by geometry (Renzo Piano, Walter Gropius), and experimentalists are inspired by nature (Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry).

For novelists, conceptualists have specific goals, and are best known for their plots (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway). Experimentalists are more focused on character development (Charles Dickens. Virginia Woolf).

In poetry, conceptualists (E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot) are technically sophisticated and grounded in literary history, while experimentalists (Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost) draw more from ordinary speech and observation.

Among great directors, conceptualists (Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick) are those whose movies are carefully planned and animated by single ideas. Experimentalists (Robert Altman, Woody Allen) are generally less sure on their goals, and often make major changes to the movie during shooting.

And for Nobel-prize winning economists, conceptualists are theorists and methodological innovators (Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow), while experimentalists make contributions that are principally empirical (Simon Kuznets, Robert Fogel).

Across these fields, a similar pattern can be seen – conceptual innovators tended to do their best work at a younger age than experimental innovators. Conceptual poet T.S. Eliot penned “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at age 23. Conceptual novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald never regained the success of The Great Gatsby, published when he was 29. Among experimentalists, Wassily Kandinsky painted his best work around age 50, while economist Robert Fogel published his most cited work, Without Consent or Contract, at age 63.

Yet while Galenson’s research studies the relationship between age and the type of innovation, another approach is to ask whether the peak age has changed over time. Work by Benjamin Jones (Kellogg School of Management) analyses the age at which Nobel laureates made their prize-winning contribution.

Across physics, chemistry, medicine and economics, Jones finds that the age at which laureates made their greatest contribution has shifted upwards over time. In the early-twentieth century, the typical prize was given for work when the winner was aged in their late-thirties, but these days it is typically given for work done in the forties.

Looking carefully at lifecycles, Jones concludes this is due to the increasing educational burden that each generation of innovators imposes on their successors. While the great minds of the early-twentieth century became research-active at age 23, those of the late-twentieth century only became research-active at age 31.

As the knowledge frontier moves out, it takes longer for the next generation to attain it. Using patent data, Jones also shows that as science has become more complex, there are more collaborations and fewer ‘renaissance men’ making contributions across different sub-fields. In the absence of a paradigm shift, the normal process of scientific accumulation steadily moves the knowledge frontier outwards.

While lifecycle economics has policy implications, it also naturally leads to introspection. I couldn’t resist asking 37 year-old Jones how studying age-creativity patterns has made him view his own research. He responded: ‘My studies suggest my current age is one of peak productivity – and soon there will be a decline – so I’d better get back to work!’

Andrew Leigh is a 36 year-old economist at the Australian National University.

(To avoid example-overload, the paragraph on movie directors didn’t appear in the AFR version.)

I found this a fascinating literature to delve into. The way that Galenson marshals evidence to create his ranking lists is creative, though invariably imprecise. From interviews, I’ve heard that experts in the field generally hate the notion that there can be any unidimensional ranking of talent, and are horrified by the idea of counting mentions in anthologies to derive that ranking.

For those who’d like to read more, Galenson’s hyperlink takes you to the dozen or so NBER papers that he’s written on this theme (available only to those at edu or gov sites, sorry). Galenson has also published a book summarising his work. Ben Jones’s hyperlink takes you to the papers on his website.

I also had an email exchange with Ben Jones (who has a PhD in economics from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Princeton). I couldn’t do justice to Ben’s reply in the article, but he’s given me permission to post it below.

AL: Do you have any theories for the cross-sectional differences in age at great innovation between disciplines. For example, in Fig 7 of your ReStud paper, it looks like medical Nobellists now get the prize for work done around age 40, but chemists for work done around age 45. Also, people frequently talk about great maths innovators being young. Can we say anything systematic across the scien
ces (as Galenson does across the creative arts) about why young people tend to dominate some fields but not others?

BJ: There are two likely answers to this question. First, there are cross-sectional differences in the amount of foundational knowledge. A field with less foundational knowledge makes it easier for younger scholars to reach the knowledge frontier and actively produce great ideas. One example is early 20th century physics, when several empirical anomalies appeared that undercut classical physics. These anomalies, which ultimately resulted in the quantum mechanics revolution, opened the door to younger scholars, who did not require much pre-requisite knowledge to make signature contributions at young ages. Heisenberg, for example, made his key contributions at ages 23 and 26, even though he had nearly failed his doctoral exams on account of his poor knowledge of classical theory.

The ease of access to the knowledge frontier can also help explain some contemporary age phenomena. For example, we have seen very young entrepreneurs make leading, early contributions in computer software, internet search, and social networking, and more generally in .com enterprises. But we have not seen this so much in chemical synthesis, solid state physics, genomics, nanotechnology, or other high-tech fields. A key distinction is that the early days of software (Bill Gates and Microsoft), internet search (Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Google) were in new fields with relatively little foundational knowledge, making it easy to be at the frontier at young ages.

Second, there appears to be a bias toward younger scholars when theoretical reasoning is relatively important, as is suggested in Galenson and Weinberg’s work. For example, the prevalence of theory, in tandem with measures for the amount of foundational knowledge, are substantial predictors of the age at which Nobel Prize winners have produced their great ideas in physics, chemistry, and medicine.

Lastly, it is worth nothing that, cross-sectional differences across fields are not stable. For example, in the early 20th century, great achievement in physics came earlier in life than great achievements in chemistry, but the end of the 20th century this pattern had reversed. The amount of foundational knowledge and the relative preponderance of theory are always evolving – differentially within fields – and shift the age-creativity relationship dramatically over time.

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8 Responses to The Age of Innovation

  1. Kevin Cox says:


    The main determinate of innovation (creativity) is the environment and support for innovation in which a person finds themselves. Put almost anyone of any age into an appropriate environment and they will innovate. It is what humans do. Looking at the “outriders” of people whose innovations became recognized by many others is interesting but tells us little about how to foster innovation in the wider community.

    A good way to foster innovation is to give people the time and the resources to “have a go”.

    I am working on a submission for a way to foster innovation in economically productive ways by directing resources to people who want to innovate. The current system of funding innovation does not get enough money directed at innovation. Here is a draft of the proposal and any comments would be most welcome.

  2. Sorry, Andrew: I think this is wrong for all sorts of reasons –

  3. Fascinating column Andrew. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that I suspect as the years have rolled on the backlog of people to whom the committees would like to award prizes grows. This may not matter if they’re completely objective about the work they’re awarding the prize for, but I’m not so sure that Krugman would have got a prize so early if it wasn’t so obvious that he was brilliant from his journalistic prominence – both in his current op ed guise and in his longer essay and book journalism.

  4. James Rice says:

    Yes, an interesting column Andrew. I imagine the relationship between age and intellectual achievement is something most academics keep in the back of their minds, in the same way athletes contemplate their own age and its relationship with athletic achievement. The most famous books in economics, historically at least, seem to be published when the writer is around 50. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published when Adam Smith was around 53 years old, for example. Similarly, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published when John Maynard Keynes was around 53. If you throw in Capital, Karl Marx was around 49 when Volume 1 was published (Volumes 2 and 3 were published posthumously).

    Unfortunately sociology is less forgiving. Here’s a list of the top 10 most influential books published in the twentieth century for sociologists, according to a survey of members of the International Sociological Association. The rough age of these writers when their books were published is listed in parentheses.

    (1) Max Weber, Economy and Society (published posthumously in 1922 when Weber would have been around 58; Weber died in 1920)
    (2) C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (43)
    (3) Robert K Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (39)
    (4) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (41)
    (5) Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (published when Berger was around 37 and Luckmann was around 39)
    (6) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction (49)
    (7) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (42)
    (8) Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (52)
    (9) Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (35)
    (10) Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (34)

    The average age here is a sprightly 43!

  5. Peter Fyfe says:

    At the risk of further muddying already turbid waters, may I suggest that what we’re here referring to here as “experimental” is phenomenologically equivalent to “esoteric”, and what we’re calling “conceptual” as “exoteric”. Alas, using such words tends to freak out exoteric thinkers and results in an irrational fervour to label, attack and reduce rather than observe, explore, and engage (a false dialectic that perversely parallels the modes of esoteric and exoteric thinking).

    I walk into Andrew’s lion’s den to observe that esoteric traditions are typically dominated by older thinkers (mystics). Younger thinkers may evolve images or visions, but it’s not until they’re older that they seem to have any hope of conceptualising them or rendering them even remotely understandable. In fact, the schools of some mystic traditions do not accept “students” under the age of forty.

    A more accessible Western example is that of the life and work of Carl Jung. Following Jung’s famous break up with Freud (over what we might characterise as a conceptual psychology), Jung spent a number of years wrestling with his “unconscious”, to emerge in his mid forties with the beginnings of a new psychology he spent the rest of this life realising. What I find fascinating about this in the context of Andrew’s article is that after his fallow years (late thirties to early forties) when his notions of psychology emerged, Jung himself admits he didn’t have any more “new” ideas – although he did keep discovering new things about the ones he’d found during that fallow.

    This would suggest to me that it may be imprudent to characterise the ideas of “experimental” thinkers and creatives as “vague” but rather not easily rendered in thought or language. My experience as an artist/writer playing experimentally with big ideas is that they are clear in their own terms but fervently resist the reductive process of being rendered in the crudeness of language and thought. This is partly where a richer experience base helps – the one that comes from having lived for a significant number of adult years. Do you see the distinction I’m making: the idea isn’t vague, only its rendering. Yes, it’s a typically “experimental” nuance.

    Another observation I’d make from my own experience is that “experimental” (esoteric) work requires an attitude of compassion toward the subtle ideas and the audience for whom they are rendered, whereas “conceptual” (exoteric) work seems to thrive in the rough house of dialectic, debate, and argument. I note that compassion grows with age (having children demands it!) so this seemingly required attitude may contribute to older workers favouring more esoteric themes and being better at them. Some ideas would be wasted by the young.

    It’s probably obvious that my interest in this field arises from the praxis of it rather than its study. But I hope these all too vague observations are interesting to those looking beyond the numbers and the easy terms to what the oldies keep telling us lies beneath.

    But that could be age (despite being only 44) talking. 🙂

    PS: I wouldn’t be true to form if I didn’t remind myself that the experimental/conceptual (esoteric/exoteric) division is a false dialectic of the sort typically demanded by thought and probably not part of the deeper idea itself (it makes my head spin trying to not think about it).

  6. The Age of Innovation posted on OLO 7/7/09 11pm
    Who works with hands, head and heart is an artist who could also be a scientist.
    There is little room for experimentation or inspiration when ‘innovative’ young people are force-fed on Ritalin because they do not fit into the glove of the education system or anywhere else for that matter!
    By the time these little geniuses get to secondary education there self esteem is eroded to such a degree eventually resulting in mental illness. The ‘obsessive compulsiveness’ in many individuals is the very driving force necessary for ‘Innovative Creativity”. -KS

  7. Chauncey says:

    I can’t believe that Einstein was having brilliance published at age 26. Pretty unbelievable. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Patrick says:

    haha Krystyna.
    I wish some more of those artists would be scientists!

    But I agree with what I take to be a broader point about the deleterious effects of contemporary standardised at-all-costs-don’t-disturb-the-poor-precious-put-upon-hard-working-and-above-all-deserving teacher education system.

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