Who Gets Better With Age?

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal asserts that, while various life skills seem to deteriorate as people get older, our skill at making personal-finance decisions doesn’t peak until the ripe age of 53. “Baseball players are said to peak in their late 20’s,” writes David Wessel. “Chess players in their mid-30’s. Theoretical economists in their mid-40’s. But in ordinary life, there’s an obvious tension between sheer smarts, often seen in the supple minds of the young, and experience, which comes only with age.”

The article is based on research by the economists David Laibson, Xavier Gabaix, John Driscoll, and Sumit Agarwal. This is an interesting finding, if not all that surprising: good financial decisions would seem to be based in large part on past experience, especially past failures.

But what it got me to thinking about is what other activities or pursuits we tend to get better at later in life. A lot of the most visible competitive acts in modern society — especially sports and fame-grabbing — favor the young, and youth is rewarded in a variety of other ways (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that age is punished). I’ve always thought that writers and actors get better with age, but that’s complicated by the fact that most unsuccessful writers and actors stop writing and acting by the time they’re in their 40’s or 50’s.

How about cooking? Gardening? Driving? What do you all think are the pursuits that people do better as they get older?


jaylake

This question has been very much on my mind. I'm an early-career science fiction and fantasy author. I've got about 200 short stories in print, two small press novels out, my first New York house book out this coming June, three more books scheduled in the next two years after that. I've also won several major awards, and have been a Hugo and World Fantasy Award finalist.

In other words, I'm generally considered successful by my peers in the field, and by the critical establishment.

But I couldn't get arrested, let alone sell a story, until I was 37. I spent ten years working at this, to no avail whatsoever except the joys of practice, then spent the last six years breaking out like crazy.

So, as a writer, I was utterly unsuccessful in my 20s and most of my 30s, but in my late 30s (and now my 40s) I became increasingly successful. It sometimes bothers me that I didn't come to this point in my career sooner -- I have a sense of the number of years, and books, available to me, and would liked to have leveraged the nearly two decades of functional, productive adulthood I spent on other pursuits that held far less meaning to me.

The counterargument of course is that I had to live long enough to have something to say. It's one I like to trot out every now and then simply to convince myself.

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RobertSeattle

I think you are a better parent if you have your children later than earlier.

Fontosaurus

Pro cyclists don't usually hit their stride until their 30's -- the endurance peak hits around 28 and lasts until 32 or 33 (per "common wisdom" -- I don't have the data to back this up). Combine that with the time to develop the strategic skills, and I'd say that a cyclist who hits the pro ranks in his early 20's isn't going to really bloom until 30.

Bruno

With age, one surely gets better at contemplating. Not to say this always happens, but if it happens, it's with a fair amount of experience.

But I disagree with the equation age = experience. I'm not that old, and still I find myself more experienced (or even wise)(but unfortunately not modest) than people much older than me.

In the end, "age" remains the amount of time one has spent alive, and some people use it one way, some another.

bigpappa421

People improve at dating with age. Don't all of the posters remember how awkward their first date was? Can you imagine where you would be today and whom you would be with if you never improved at that exercise?

kah

The older people are, the shrewder their judgment about what works to maintain good family relationships. Doesn't matter if you are talking about parent-kid, sibling-sibling, spouse, whatever. I don't think it peaks.

In general, novel creative theories are the province of the young, and reality-based pragmatism is the province of the old.

Family dynamics happen to be something where novel creative theories almost always bomb. Families haven't really changed for millenia, so the reality-based pragmatism works best in the end.

So if you want family advice, don't ask your age peer... Ask six of the oldest people you can find. Notice if there is anything that they all agree on that you should do. Believe it or not, it is amazing how accurate that consensus-info will be.

amit

Interesting, Jim Cramer just turned 53.

jonathank

The quotes from the article's author don't really track the content of the research. The point he raises, as you quote above, is about a potential difference in the younger creative mind versus the older. Everyone knows that age affects physical skills. The actual research is about curves of mental acuity and experience generating better results in middle age and, duh, worse results at the ends.

As to the point raised by the quote, my peculiar belief is that younger minds have not developed patterns which bind their thinking within limits. They thus can have more "creativity" in the sense they can think "outside the box." The more experienced mind - but one that is not in actual decline - may think as fast and as well but will tend to act within limits that it has accepted and developed. In this regard, artists of all sorts are respected for the depth of their rendition (in paint, in sound) rather than the way that they break convention. This is a different kind of "suppleness."

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egretman

Why does evolution kill us off at 70+? Is it because the young are change agents and if the old lived vigorously into their 100's then we would be a poorly adapted species? Look at rural China where change happened slowly and age had the highest respect. I'm not saying it's not an equally satisfying life, but it's hard to see those old f*rts adapting to the internet or inventing a faster growing rice.

On the other hand, I see so many promising young people that are in dire need of a mentor. You cannot reject what you do not know. It's exciting to a see a career that learns the old ways and only rejects them for a bold new path when the time is right. Did Einstein not fully know Newton? Of course, he was thoroughly steeped in the old ways.

Finally, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll definitely get better with age. What else matters?

campsteve

I am an artist. My skills get better with age and is so for most artists I know. Perhaps this is just the result of more practice and not really age. If I stopped drawing for a few years and picked up the pencil again, I bet my skills would have suffered as I grew older.

brad_c

Supposing the tradeoff is one in which younger people are more able to think outside the box, while older people are more practiced in conventional methods, maybe Levitt should be pushing for reverse tenure. Let the young academics turn the research on its head without fear of repercussion and make the older academics use their experience to refine research with more conventional methods. Comparative advantage, anyone?

stankwell

I haven't read the research paper*, but question the methodology. The article indicates the basis for their conclusions was that younger and older people are more likely to incur "easily avoided" credit card fees than middle-age people. I'm not sure this is dispositive of the question.

* Looks like the high number of downloads today has triggered an "under review" block.

frankenduf

old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill

kah

Medical professionals are best when middle-aged because they have experience but their training is not yet too out of date.

rhino

I would think that people get better at gambling (at least in skill games like poker) as they get older, at least to a point. You don't often see people in their early twenties winning the World Series of Poker, but then the only guy over the age of fifty who is regularly at the final table is Doyle Brunson.

snubgodtoh

I think the function of anything plotted against age is a concave parabola with varying intercepts and integrals. Eventually your brain and body get over the hump and face negative slope--law of diminishing marginal returns, another year goes in but less comes out.

Also, I can't believe you suggested driving which clearly shares an inverse relationship with ear and nose hair.

egretman

RandyfromCanada, get your hot dog buns off of snubgodtoh and quit channeling his identity.

R.AndyFromCanada

How dare you egretman? You girl.

R.AndyFromCanada

French-speaking Canadians exhibit positive monotonicity in all activity-age functions, with the exception of being womanly of course.

RyanM

"People improve at dating with age. Don't all of the posters remember how awkward their first date was? Can you imagine where you would be today and whom you would be with if you never improved at that exercise?"

Are you serious bigpappa421? You dont get better at dating with age, you get better at dating with practice (just like everything else). If Age was all that mattered then a 40 year old who has never dated would be better than a 20 year old with 5 years of dating experience (which is clearly not the case)