Aging of Innovators?

GOTO Akira
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

The rapid aging of the population is beginning to have significant impacts on the Japanese economy and society. Sustainability of the social security system is the most serious and debated issue. Problems are arising in the area of technology. For instance, the massive retirement of baby boomers in years to come is raising a serious concern: how to ensure that their seasoned skills and know-how will be passed down to the younger generations.

In the case of researchers, it is generally the case that they are capable of creative work most when they are young. Albert Einstein carried out innovative research at the age of 26. The number of researchers engaged in creative research decreases with their age. It is said that the main reason for this, though it sounds harsh, is that people become less inclined to exert effort as they become older.

Aging of Nobel Prize winners over the past 100 years

Benjamin F. Jones of Northwestern University has shown that the age at which Nobel Prize winning innovations or other notable technology developments are made has increased substantially over the past 100 years by comparing the ages of great innovators at the beginning and end of the 20th century. I will discuss this in more detail later. For now, let me just point out that the aging of innovators, according to Jones, is not a result of population aging as the general trend in society or of the increasing proportion of elderly people.

This study by Jones is quite intriguing; collecting data on great innovations from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, he conducted a thorough statistical analysis of the age at which Nobel Prize winners and other great inventors succeeded in their research. The findings show that the age at which noted innovations are produced increased by approximately six years over the course of the century. Also, by examining how the age distribution of inventors differs between the two points in time, Jones found that the age at which innovators begin making active contributions has increased by about eight years, more specifically that innovators began making great scientific innovations at the average of 23 at the beginning of the 20th century but not until the age of 31 at the end. Meanwhile, he noted that hardly any shift is observed in the age at which innovators cease making great contributions.

What is intriguing here is that no comparable shift is observable in the age trends of great athletes, i.e. the age at which athletes make great achievements. This shows that the aging trend is a problem peculiar to those engaged in knowledge-based activities.

As a reason behind the delay in the age at which innovators begin making contributions, Jones points to the longer education period today, that is, those who in older times would have started on creative research activities are these days still receiving education. This, combined with the aforementioned point that there is virtually no change in the age at which innovators cease to make achievements, means that an active innovation period, i.e. a portion of time innovators spend innovating within their lifecycle, is becoming shorter today. It may be that innovators are spending so much time before they are able to climb onto what Newton called the "shoulders of giants," i.e. the enormous accumulation of knowledge developed by past studies, that they are left with little time for their own creative research activities. What is implied here is that the quantity of great scientific achievements and innovations that a single scientist or engineer is able to produce is becoming small, which, if true, poses a potentially serious problem. Indeed, it has been pointed out that both the number of patents and the degree of contribution to productivity growth per scientist have been declining over the long term and the finding by Jones is consistent with this trend. According to Jones' back-of-the-envelope calculation, contributions to productivity growth per scientist in the United States in 2000 stood at about one third of what they used to be in 1900.

Nurturing of human resources so as to maximize research achievements

However, it should be noted that cases taken up by Jones concern the development of highly innovative technologies such as Nobel Prize winning inventions; the cumulative progress of technologies, i.e. the accumulation of subtle yet critical improvements of technologies, has been making major contributions to productivity growth which are just as critical as those of great inventions. In this sense, we must be careful in linking arguments on innovative inventions and discoveries to those on productivity.

Should it be that creative research achievements are decreasing because the most creative period in innovators' lifecycles must be spent on education, then, it is necessary to consider how to optimally balance the tradeoff between receiving advanced education and being engaged in creative research activities while in youth so as to maximize resulting research achievements.

Human resources development is taken up as one of the major themes in the government's Science and Technology Basic Plan for Phase III. If it simply takes longer for potential innovators to reach the starting point of their careers because of the advancement of science and hence an increasing distance to the knowledge frontier, then, it is very important to create an environment that enable innovators to shorten such a catch-up period and embark on their own creative research activities as quickly as possible. Instead of just sitting back and helplessly watching educational periods get longer with the advancement of science, we must reexamine the whole university and graduate school education system, including the length of term for each academic course and education methods. It seems that we need to start from the very basics and ponder what would be the most desirable way of nurturing human resources.

February 21, 2006

Benjamin F. Jones, "Age and Great Invention," NBER Working Paper 11359

February 21, 2006

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