Aging and Productivity

A recent article1 on aging and scientific productivity motivated this blog post. This article should have relevance beyond academia and science. It should be relevant to all knowledge workers. And as a healthy memory is a key component of productivity, it is thought to be relevant to the Healthymemory Blog.

It was long thought that scientific productivity followed an inverted U-shaped curve. That it took time for young researchers to acquire sufficient experience and knowledge for their productivity to to reach its peak, followed by a decline as the researcher aged. Many assumed that it was aging that contributed to the decline that was mostly cognitive. However the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which was passed in 1986 and applied to colleges and universities in 1994 outlawed mandatory retirement. Consequently, academics could work as long as they wished. After the policy of mandatory retirement was removed 24% of faculty aged 70, 19% of faculty age 71, and 17% of faculty aged 72 retired. So many faculty opted not to retire.

It is interesting to consider why there was a mandatory retirement age in the first place. Underlying the notion of mandatory retirement was the assumption that older people were less productive and that they needed to exit from the workforce to make room for more productive younger people. Of course, if older people were indeed not less productivity, then this assumption was invalid.

To jump to the conclusion of the research article, it turns out that scientific researchers can be productive well beyond the mandatory retirement age and that the assumption was indeed invalid for academics. I would contend that it is not much of a leap to extend this conclusion to all knowledge. Indeed, it would appear to apply to all knowledgeworkers, except, perhaps, for those whose jobs have a significant physical component.

This post is not arguing against retirement. Indeed after many years of work, people have earned the right to retire. Two questions should be asked. Does the person want to retire? If the answer is “no”, and the individual is still productive, then that person should definitely not retire. If the answer is “yes”, the second question is what are you going to do in retirement. There are anecdotes of people dying shortly after they retire, or of their becoming nuisances to their spouses because they have nothing to do. Unless you have have some activity that keeps you engaged and mentally active you risk increasing the probability of cognitive decline.

1Stroebe, W. (2010). The Graying of Academia: Will It Reduce Productivity. American Psychologist, 65, 660-673.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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