When we lived in Bremerhaven, Germany in the early 1960s, my younger sister and I eagerly shared the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The first one, Little House in the Big Woods, was published when the author was 65.
For the 50th anniversary of his class of 1825 at Bowdoin College, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem (Morituri Salutamus) which ran through a list of giants who did great work late in life—Cato, who learned Greek at 80, Chaucer, who penned The Canterbury Tales at 60, and Goethe, who completed Faust when “80 years were past.” Longfellow, then 68, exhorted his aging classmates to not lie down and fade. No, “something remains for us to do or dare,” he said.
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
The assumption that creativity and gray hair is an oxymoron is a widely held stereotype. What’s more, the notion that creativity declines with age is deeply rooted, but it’s also deeply wrong. Anecdotal and scholarly evidence shows overwhelming that creativity doesn’t fade with age—or at least it doesn’t have to.
Launching Innovative Second Careers
University of Chicago economist David Galenson has taken a systematic look into the relationship between aging and innovation, discovering that many famous artists were at their creative best in their 60s, 70s and even 80s.
Galenson’s favorite example: artist Paul Cézanne, who died at 67 in 1906. Cézanne was always experimenting, always pushing his art, never satisfied. Thanks to his creative restlessness, the paintings of his last few years “would come to be considered his greatest contribution and would directly influence every important artistic development of the next generation,” wrote Galenson in Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.
The same holds for many others, including Matisse, Twain and Hitchcock.
“Every time we see a young person do something extraordinary, we say, ‘That’s a genius,’” Galenson remarked in an interview with Encore.org, a nonprofit helping people 50+ launch second acts for for the greater good. “Every time we see an old person do something extraordinary we say, ‘Isn’t that remarkable?’ Nobody had noticed how many of those old exceptions there are and how much they have in common.”
One of those “remarkable” people is Ed Laub, 62, a seven-string guitarist in New Jersey who plays with famed jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, 89. (Pizzarelli’s bass player is 95.) I caught up with Laub after a weekend gig in St. Louis and Denver and before the group took off to play in Miami.
Playing guitar is a second career for Laub. His grandfather was a founder of Allied Van Lines and Laub worked for some three decades in the business, alongside his father.
Laub started taking lessons from Pizzarelli when he was 16. When he neared 50, Laub realized that what he really wanted to do was play guitar full-time. His parents had passed away, so he sold the business in 2003 and began teaming up with Pizzarelli. They now perform about 100 times a year in all kinds of venues—auditoriums, jazz clubs, private parties and a regular gig at Shanghai Jazz, a Chinese restaurant/jazz club in Madison, N.J.
Laub told he me has used his business acumen to boost their pay. “What I found out is many creative types have no idea how to manage a business,” he said. “No matter how creative you are, if you do it for a living, it’s a business.”
Boomers Taking Career Risks
My suspicion is the old-aren’t-creative stereotype is a major factor behind the rise in self-employment among boomers. Many people in their 50s and 60s are eager to break away from their jobs if management won’t give them the opportunity to exercise their creative muscles.
Barbara Goldstein, 65, of San Jose, Calif., gets her creative juices flowing by promoting artists. She’s an independent consultant focused on public art planning with clients including the California cities of Pasadena and Palo Alto. “I have as many ideas, if not more, than I did in my 20s and 30s,” she said. “What happens over time is you learn things and you become much more effective in the work you do.”
Goldstein noted that with age, you realize if you want to get something done, you have to go for it—there’s no point in waiting because time is precious. To further broaden her horizons, Goldstein is a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, a new, one-year program helping older professionals think through the next stage of their lives.
“If you’re always doing the same thing it’s hard to be creative,” she says. (Incidentally, if you know someone 60 or older who’s just now doing great encore career work, nominate him or her for Encore.org’s 2015 Purpose Prize.)
Economists Joseph Quinn of Boston College, Kevin Cahill of Analysis Group and Michael Giandrea of the Bureau of Labor Statistics have found a sizable jump in recent years in the percentage of people who are self-employed in their 50s and 60s. “Older workers exhibit a great deal of flexibility in their work decisions and appear willing to take on substantial risks later in life,” they wrote. And, I’d add, they’re creative.
What can you do to stay creative in your Unretirement years?
- Don’t isolate yourself. Be willing to engage with people from diverse backgrounds and of different ages, as Goldstein does.
- Try something new, experiment, take a leap. That’s what Laub did, going from moving van boss to professional guitarist.
- Go back to school to pick up new skills.
- And when someone disparages older people for their lack of creativity, tell them about Cezanne and Matisse.
With time, the Unretirement movement will demolish yet one more stereotype holding people back.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the new book Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. He writes twice a month about the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications of Unretirement, and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Send your queries to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cfarrellecon on Twitter.
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