Some of the world’s best-known innovators, such as Google Inc. founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, did their landmark work before age 30. But it’s more common for inventors to start slowly and fade fast — a problem that is driving many high-tech companies to seek ways to stretch out the productive careers of their top researchers.
Researchers’ longevity faces pressure from two directions. It takes time to train young investigators so they can tackle the right problems effectively. Meanwhile, there’s a belief in some circles that older researchers are akin to aging athletes — full of knowledge but no longer nimble enough to be superstars.
A particularly stark view of age-related constraints on researchers’ work comes from Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He examined biographical data over the past century for more than 700 Nobel laureates and renowned inventors.
His conclusion: “Innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle.” In the early 20th century, he found, researchers at the times of their greatest contributions averaged slightly more than 36 years old. In recent decades, innovation before the age of 30 became increasing rare, with the peak age of contribution rising toward age 40. Meanwhile, the frequency of key contributions has consistently diminished by researchers in their early or mid-50s.
Occasionally, Mr. Jones says, booming new fields “permit easier access to the frontier, allowing people to make contributions at younger ages.” That could account for the relative youth of Internet innovators, such as Netscape Communications Corp. founder Marc Andreessen and Messrs. Page and Brin. But “when the revolution is over,” Mr. Jones finds, “ages rise.”