NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 21, 2005

Innovation is a key component of economic growth. One researcher from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that the average age at which individuals produce notable inventions and ideas has increased steadily over the past century.

The author analyzed data on Nobel Prize winners in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Economics over the past 100 years and on outstanding technological innovations over the same period. He finds that:

  • There is large variation in age -- 42 percent of innovations came about when their creators were in their 30s, while 40 percent occurred when the inventors were in their 40s, and 13 percent appeared when the inventors were over 50.
  • In contrast, there were no great achievements produced by innovators before the age of 19 and only 7 percent were produced by innovators younger than 27.
  • Controlling for nationality and field of study, the average age of a great innovator increased eight years over the past century.

Looking closer at the data, the author finds that:

  • The upward trend for productive innovators is a result of a substantial decline in the innovative output of younger individuals.
  • There appears to be no relative increase in innovation potential of those beyond middle age.

The article suggests that the average age is increasing, because the amount of knowledge has increased. Since thinkers must increasingly invest in acquiring intellectual capital and the accumulation of knowledge, the average age of innovation increases as well.

Source: Matt Nesvisky, "Great Innovations Come Later In Life," NBER Digest, December 2005; based upon: Benjamin Jones, "Age and Great Invention," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 11359, May 2005.

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