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The Myth of Creative Decline

Chris Farrell November 11, 2019

Keeping older people engaged in the economy is critical for innovation and growth.

Several years ago I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see the exhibit, “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs.” Matisse, born in 1869, turned to art in his early twenties and, during his rich and varied career, he became one of the giants of modern art. This thumbnail sketch of Matisse is familiar to the average museum-goer.

Less well known is that, in 1941, Matisse barely survived colon surgery. He was a semi-invalid until his death at age 84 in 1954. Yet in the final decade of his life he created a new art form—the cut-outs. They’re magnificent, visually stunning, constructed out of white paper, gouache, and scissors. He mostly made the cut-outs from his wheelchair and bed.

We still don’t appreciate how many artists do their most imaginative work later in life. Yet once you start looking it’s easy to find examples. Take Laura Ingalls Wilder. She didn’t start writing in earnest until she was 57. “Little House in the Big Woods” was published when she was 65 years old. How about Norman Maclean? He wrote “A River Runs Through It” at age 74, three years after retiring from the University of Chicago. A “New York Times” art critic recently visited the Laurel Canyon art studio of long-time artist Betye Saar, age 93 years, and wonderfully described two of the three-dimensional assemblage’s she’s working on, including one about racism and slavery.

Artists like these are exceptionally talented, of course. What does their flourishing later in life tell us about the average experienced worker and entrepreneur? Everything.

The pernicious and widely accepted stereotype is that people in the second half of life aren’t creative. Experienced workers are set in their ways, reluctant to learn new skills, unwilling to embrace new technologies and new ways of doing business—or so we’re told.

A major theme of my book “Purpose and a Paycheck” is that these negative stereotypes are wrong, really wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that creativity and inventiveness don’t fade with the accumulation of birthdays. Like Matisse, the creative impulse often improves with time and experience, not just in the arts but in the skilled trades, the professions and other occupations.

That realization is critical to the economy future dynamism. After all, entrepreneurship is creative. The 55 to 64 year age group accounted for 26% of new entrepreneurs in 2017, up from about 15% in 1997. The attractions of entrepreneurship are many. Experienced workers steer clear of human resource departments and their age bias barriers to hiring. They’re building a business off their experience, knowledge and passions. Thanks to the rise of digital technologies—internet, mobile, and sharing apps— the typical startup takes little money to open. The office is typically the home or space at a low-cost cosharing workplace.

Scholarly studies document that experienced workers are productive workers. The organizational benefits of employing a diverse workforce include tapping into the insights of experienced workers. Here’s one indication of the growing embrace of work. The labor force participation rate of the 65 to 69 year old age group rose from nearly 20% in 1987 to more than 33% in 2018.

I call the grassroots, social movement reimaging the second half of life unretirement. Other popular catchphrases are encore, third age and next chapter. One difficulty with describing the rethinking that’s going in is we don’t have a good vocabulary for it.

Whatever you call it, keeping people engaged in the economy in the second half of life is a recipe in the twenty-first century for fueling creativity, encouraging innovation, and boosting economic growth. Think smart, productive and engaged.

For more from Chris Farrell, enter to win a copy of his book “Purpose and a Paycheck.”

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Chris Farrell

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor at Marketplace, American Public Media's nationally syndicated public radio business and economic programs. An award winning journalist, Farrell is a regular contributor to PBS Next Avenue and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, Kiplinger's and other publications.

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