The youth creativity puzzle


The WSJ had a very interesting article about the fact that major breakthroughs are not being done by younger scientists as they were in the days of old. The basic line is that this is because of (a) demographics — there are more older scientists who claim the grants and/or (b) society is to blame and the institutions are biased against youth and destroying creativity. Funnily enough, they roll out two older economists — Tyler Cowen and Paul Romer — to reinforce those conclusions.

The alternative, of course, would have been to pay attention to the research of a relatively younger economist at Northwestern, Ben Jones, who over a few years of careful and comprehensive research has documented (i) the fact that scientists are older these days when their major breakthroughs are achieved and (ii) that the evidence supports the hypothesis that this isn’t a problem with society and institutions necessarily as it is with the fact that it just takes longer to get up to speed at the frontier of scientific knowledge and that team production in research is more important. The latter is where institutional details comes to bear in that scientific rewards are tailored to the individual. But his research offers a cautionary note on simply directing funds on the basis of youth because that may not be efficient if they are not at the frontier. There is much more and you can read about it in a paper Jones presented Tuesday at the NBER Conference on Innovation Policy and the Economy.

5 Responses to "The youth creativity puzzle"
  1. In general, careers in a variety of fields are being extended in length: e.g., sports, rock music, and so forth.
    Better conditioning, less cocaine, alcohol, and tobacco, more antibiotics, better heart care, etc. probably all help people stay in decent shape physically and mentally for longer.

  2. The point on physics is well known.  Even though the recipients of Nobel prizes are getting older, the actually age they were when the research was done is almost always under 30.
    In many fields it is just about impossible to get grants or supercomputing time or telescope time or synchrotron time unless you have a history of previously receiving grants/time and producing papers.  Those papers don’t have to be any good, they just have to get published.
    The young talent gets frustrated with academic life and leaves to the technology start-up sector.  Or they become investment bankers because at least that way they get paid.

  3. So, really the problem is education isn’t preparing people for breakthroughs fast enough.

  4. Has it occured to anyone that the reason why fewer young people are being creative is due to the fact that our education is the worst it has ever been, and seems to only be getting worse? I teach college composition, and I don’t have a single student who can either think or write. None. They don’t know anything, have never been made to think about anything (not that you can think without knowing anything, since you have to have something to think about), and cannot express themselves clearly. It’s not the fault of the students, but of the educational system. And I don’t see a lot happening in undergrad school to improve things. Rather, I just see even more dumbing down there. So I’m not surprised to hear this at all.

  5. Tony if anything the education system seems to be almost deliberately aimed at failure. Friend teaches pharmacology to nursing students a worrying number of these students are very nonchalant about decimal places!

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