Author: Arthur C Brooks
Source: The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/)
It is no secret that age and happiness is linked. However, the relationship between age and happiness is not linear: “In wealthier countries, most people’s contentment starts to increase again in their 50s, until age 70 or so. That is where things get less predictable, however. After 70, some people stay steady in happiness; others get happier until death. Others—men in particular—see their happiness plummet. Indeed, depression and suicide rates for men increase after age 75.”
So why do some men become unhappy after 70? The answer in one word is irrelevance. “In 2007, a team of academic researchers at UCLA and Princeton analyzed data on more than 1,000 older adults. Their findings, published in the Journal of Gerontology, showed that senior citizens who rarely or never “felt useful” were nearly three times as likely as those who frequently felt useful to develop a mild disability, and were more than three times as likely to have died during the course of the study.”
Ironically, the more gifted you are, the more painful it seems to be to get older. In fact, elite performers suffer the most when it comes to coming to terms with the ravages of ageing: “Why might former elite performers have such a hard time? No academic research has yet proved this, but I strongly suspect that the memory of remarkable ability, if that is the source of one’s self-worth, might, for some, provide an invidious contrast to a later, less remarkable life. “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,” Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 race-car driver, once wrote. “For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success.””
Whilst all of us find it easy to understand the physical decline that elite athletes have to go bear, few of us realise that around us are other professionals who are having to face up to premature decline even though they are only in their 20s and 30s: “In some professions, early decline is inescapable. No one expects an Olympic athlete to remain competitive until age 60. But in many physically nondemanding occupations, we implicitly reject the inevitability of decline before very old age…The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks.
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….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…When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s…”
So if decline is inevitable and comes earlier than we think what can we do to prepare for it? “….some people have managed their declines well. Consider the case of Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685 to a long line of prominent musicians in central Germany, Bach quickly distinguished himself as a musical genius. In his 65 years, he published more than 1,000 compositions for all the available instrumentations of his day.
Early in his career, Bach was considered an astoundingly gifted organist and improviser. Commissions rolled in; royalty sought him out; young composers emulated his style. He enjoyed real prestige.
But it didn’t last—in no small part because his career was overtaken by musical trends ushered in by, among others, his own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, known as C.P.E. to the generations that followed. The fifth of Bach’s 20 children, C.P.E. exhibited the musical gifts his father had. He mastered the baroque idiom, but he was more fascinated with a new “classical” style of music, which was taking Europe by storm. As classical music displaced baroque, C.P.E.’s prestige boomed while his father’s music became passé.
Bach easily could have become embittered, like Darwin. Instead, he chose to redesign his life, moving from innovator to instructor. He spent a good deal of his last 10 years writing The Art of Fugue, not a famous or popular work in his time, but one intended to teach the techniques of the baroque to his children and students—and, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, to any future generations that might be interested. In his later years, he lived a quieter life as a teacher and a family man….When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor…”
So how can we be like Bach? “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….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….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. A study in The Journal of Higher Education showed that the oldest college professors in disciplines requiring a large store of fixed knowledge, specifically the humanities, tended to get evaluated most positively by students. This probably explains the professional longevity of college professors, three-quarters of whom plan to retire after age 65—more than half of them after 70, and some 15 percent of them after 80.”
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