The myths of creativity and age

There are a lot of myths around concerning creativity and age. Not least the myth that older people are stuck in their ways and that this is a barrier to creativity.

Creativity is a wide-ranging word and can be defined in many ways. We often use it to refer to the arts. However, creative behaviour at work can enhance the performance of individuals, teams and organisations. Creativity can mean different things to different people. Csikszentmihalyi says the recognition that something is creative is often reliant on the field in which this creativity is displayed. Whether or not the idea or product is accepted. Generally, creativity is defined by a range of characteristics, which normally include newness and appropriateness.

So, what do we know about age and creativity? Evidence suggests that older workers gain from experience and confidence to be able to develop new ideas. Younger workers lack experience, however, this can mean that they are not so set in habitual ways of working. They may lack confidence, however, they gain in energy and new knowledge.

There is a lot of stereotyping around age. Stereotyping can something we apply to ourselves as well as others. This is not at all helpful when we want to encourage creativity. We need to suspend judgments and challenge our assumptions.

So, to come back to those myths. Martin Seligman  has researched the evidence that exists around creativity and aging and drawn some interesting conclusions, which I summarise below.

What gets worse with aging is:

  • Speed
  • Stamina
  • Memory (short term)
  • Fluid reasoning
  • Originality of thought.

This sounds very depressing, if like me, you are ageing – and aren’t we all?

However, according to Seligman this is balanced by the characteristics which get better, or stay the same:

  • Knowledge, both general and domain specific
  • Intuition
  • Heuristics (taking shortcuts)
  • Interest and motivation
  • Effective Collaboration

Martin Seligman concludes: Our review suggests it is indeed possible that creativity can even increase as we age, and benefit from the skills and experiences already obtained.

How can we develop creativity for older workers?

In organisations it is important to encourage older workers to work in ways that motivate them. Motivation levels can be increased by encouraging a  sharing of knowledge and expertise. Well matched mentoring schemes can be extremely helpful here and can offer advantages both to older workers who become mentors, and younger people who through this can inspire older workers with new thinking.

We are  also seeing changes in society with older people setting up businesses later in life and retiring to take up creative pursuits. As a society we could look at how we can encourage this. I have written previously around developing creative pursuits here.

A wonderful example of a movement to encourage art across generations was started in Lisbon, and more details can be found here.

Do you have any examples to share of creativity and age projects?

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently published a book on creativity for leaders with Dr. Tracy Stanley, entitled Creativity Cycling .