Creativity is not just for the young

Two career paths revealed for Nobel laureates in economics.


Creativity is characterized by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, find hidden patterns, make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and generate solutions. Creativity is associated with many factors, including conducive environments, ideal collaborators, personality traits, serendipity, and even a quest for spiritual muses.

If you think great scientists are most creative when they’re young. There is another part of the story. A new study by the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics suggests that there are two different life cycles of creativity:

  • One that hits some people early in their career.
  • That more often strikes later in life.

The study estimates imply that the probability that the most conceptual laureate publishes his single best work peaks at age 25 compared to the mid-50 s, the most experimental laureate.

Bruce Weinberg, the lead author of the study and professor of economics at The Ohio State University, said, “We believe what we found in this study isn’t limited to economics, but could apply to creativity more generally.”

“Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about.”

A conceptual laureate is believed to be an innovator who thinks out of the box. They tend to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with new ideas suddenly.

But, according to Weinberg, there is another kind of creativity also- that lies among experimental laureate. Such innovators collect knowledge throughout their careers and discover new ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding. They usually take long periods for experiments.

Weinberg said, “Whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach.”

Scientists in this study involved 31 laureates. They arranged the laureates on a list from the most experimental to the most conceptual.

This ranking was based on specific, objective characteristics of the laureates’ single most important work indicative of a conceptual or experimental approach. For example, conceptual economists use assumptions, proofs, and equations and have a mathematical appendix or introduction to their papers.

Experimental economists largely believe in direct inference from facts. Thus, their papers tended to have more references to specific items.

Classifying the laureates, scientists then determined the age at which each laureate made his most important contribution to economics and could be considered at his creative peak.

Scientists used two distinct ways to gauge at which age the laureates were cited most often. Based on that, they determined their height of creativity. Using those two methods, scientists were able to identify that conceptual laureates peaked at about either 29 or 25 years of age. Experimental laureates peaked when they were roughly twice as old – at about 57 in one method or the mid-50s in the other.

Weinberg said, “These studies attribute differences in creative peaks to the nature of the scientific fields themselves, not to the scientists doing the work. Our research suggests that when you’re most creative is less a product of the scientific field that you’re in and is more about how you approach the work you do.”

Grants from the National Science Foundation supported the study, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman and Alfred P. Sloan foundations.

Weinberg studied with David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Their study appears in a special issue of the journal De Economist.

Journal Reference

  1. Bruce A. Weinberg & David W. Galenson. Creative Careers: The Life Cycles of Nobel Laureates in Economics. De Economist volume 167, pages221–239 (2019) DOI: 10.1007/s10645-019-09339-9