Creative LeadershipCreativity

Are Young People Always The Most Creative in the Room?

It’s time to put an end to the myth that age diminishes creativity

There’s a frustrating and incorrect idea out there that to be “creative” means to be “young.” Hollywood and the celebrity machine are big culprits because of their obsessive desire to reach youthful audiences. But in advertising, business, social, and even religious spaces, there’s also a strong bias in favor of young people when it comes to creativity.

If you’re an older creative professional, you know what I mean.

The problem is, there’s no science to support that idea. I reported in this blog post about Psychology Today’s study back in 2009 that revealed creativity doesn’t diminish with age. The author’s conclusion was, “I suggest that we change our expectations of the elderly. Instead of referring to “the aging problem,” we should expect our seniors to be productive throughout the lifespan.”

Economist David Galenson, author of “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity” views the issue not as “creative versus not creative,” but through the lens of different approaches to creativity at different times of life.

Tom Jacobs wrote about 221 famous painters of the 19th and 20th centuries and compared their total lifespans with the year they created what is today their most expensive work. On average, the painters produced their most highly valued work when they were 41.92 years old; they had lived just under 62% of their total lives.

Drake Baer reported in Fast Company that 42% of Robert Frost’s poems were written after the age of 50. For Wallace Stevens, it was 49%. For William Carlos Williams, it was 44%. This extends into other fields: Oliver Sacks, the beloved psychologist, was super creative into his 80s. The sculptor Louis Bourgeious said that “I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do”–and she did her best work in her 80s.

Emine Saner reported in The Guardian on acclaimed artist Paula Rego: “Working in her studio for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, Paula Rego’s creative drive is as intense as ever. “Even if I’m tired when I start working, by the end I have a lot of energy,” she says. “It’s very important for women to keep working.” At the age of 73, she has never considered retiring.”

In advertising, older creative professionals are everywhere. One of my favorites is Lee Clow, long time Creative Director, and more recently Chairman Emeritus, TBWA\Media Arts Lab who recently retired (theoretically). Lee created the legendary 1984 Apple Commercial and worked closely with Steve Jobs for 30 years. He’s done breakthrough advertising for brands like Nike, Nissan, Olympia Beer, Pacific Northwest Bell, Pioneer Electronics, Pizza Hut, Porsche and Yamaha. He’s considered a creative guru, and even at 78, he’ll be surfing more, but I have a feeling he’s not walking away from advertising.

The bottom line is that creativity isn’t related to age as much as it is hungerthe never ending desire to observe, learn, and grow. As long as you’re exploring, trying new things, reflecting about what could be, and not afraid to fail, you’ll stay creative as long as you desire.

As Carolyn Gregoire wrote: “Creative people are insatiably curious — they generally opt to live the examined life, and even as they get older, maintain a sense of curiosity about life. Whether through intense conversation or solitary mind-wandering, creatives look at the world around them and want to know why, and how, it is the way it is.”

That’s not an age decision, that’s a mindset decision.


Photo: “Creative Company Conference 2011” by Sebastiaan ter Burg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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  1. Thanks Phil, This hits very close to where I am!

    I currently work at a church where this is now becoming an issue. A new pastor, lots of new staff, lots of young new staff, and many in leadership positions before they are ready. Many of these have tons of ideas, good ones too, but they lack maturity, experience and wisdom. This prevents them from following through and accomplishing what they started. Being a creative professional requires not only the ideas but the ability to follow through as well.

    Could I have live directed a service like we have now 30 years ago? No way! I needed the maturity to handle a large crew and the experience to shoot a complex service. I’m a much better director at 59 than I was at 30!

    1. Great comment Mark. I’ve actually had a couple of clients over the years where “creativity” was everything. As a result, they did horrible planning, and the execution was terrible. As you say, maturity, experience, and wisdom do play key roles in the creative process, and it’s important for leaders of creative teams to understand that issue. Thanks for the reminder!

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