“Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think”

Well this is depressing:

According to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading experts on the trajectories of creative careers, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.

The specific timing of peak and decline vary somewhat depending on the field. Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and develop key inventions. His findings can be summarized by this little ditty:

Age is, of course, a fever chill
that every physicist must fear.
He’s better dead than living still
when once he’s past his thirtieth year.

The author of those gloomy lines? Paul Dirac, a winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Dirac overstates the point, but only a little. Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones has found that the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. He has shown that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Are there outliers? Of course. But the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.

Interesting that the decline starts so soon after the average age for getting a tenure-track job.

Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern. Simonton has shown that poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer…

Entrepreneurs peak and decline earlier, on average. After earning fame and fortune in their 20s, many tech entrepreneurs are in creative decline by age 30. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review reported that founders of enterprises valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists tend to cluster in the 20-to-34 age range

In sum, if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine.


The implications for a 42 year old who has not yet accomplished anything in his field are grim.

The author does have some helpful advice for managing one’s professional decline.

A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.

Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time…


One Response

  1. There is a sort of Indian summer of intellect where you have accumulated more knowledge and haven’t yet become hopelessly muddled and forgetful. Of course there are many fields where the accumulated knowledge is outdated, but historical knowledge ages pretty well. Having read a great many books is, however, less of an advantage than one hoped it might be when one was reading all those books. Even when one’s memory is good, the mind becomes a lumber room with no clear order. An elderly man who is well read also runs a great risk of becoming an insufferable bore. The human appetite for second-had erudition is quickly sated. Physics obviously demands a very high level of fluid intelligence, and that does seem to result in physicists running aground earlier than many other fields. But you will probably become a better undergraduate teacher because you’re slowly returning to their level and you’re not bored with teaching the easy stuff.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: