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Age and Great Invention

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  • Benjamin F. Jones

Abstract

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by approximately 6 years over the 20th Century. This trend is consistent with a shift in the life-cycle productivity of great minds. It is also consistent with an aging workforce. The paper employs a semi-parametric maximum likelihood model to (1) test between these competing explanations and (2) locate any specific shifts in life-cycle productivity. The productivity explanation receives considerable support. I find that innovators are much less productive at younger ages, beginning to produce major ideas 8 years later at the end of the 20th Century than they did at the beginning. Furthermore, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age. I show that these distinct shifts for knowledge-based careers are consistent with a knowledge-based theory, where the accumulation of knowledge across generations leads innovators to seek more education over time. More generally, the results show that individual innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle, a trend that reduces -- other things equal -- the aggregate output of innovators. This drop in productivity is particularly acute if innovators' raw ability is greatest when young.

Suggested Citation

  • Benjamin F. Jones, 2005. "Age and Great Invention," NBER Working Papers 11359, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:11359
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Benjamin F. Jones, 2009. "The Burden of Knowledge and the "Death of the Renaissance Man": Is Innovation Getting Harder?," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 76(1), pages 283-317.
    2. David W. Galenson, 2004. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young or Very Old Innovator: Creativity at the Extremes of the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 10515, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Martin L. Weitzman, 1998. "Recombinant Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(2), pages 331-360.
    4. David W. Galenson, 2004. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Careers of Modern Novelists," NBER Working Papers 10213, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Samuel S. Kortum, 1997. "Research, Patenting, and Technological Change," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 65(6), pages 1389-1420, November.
    6. David W. Galenson & Bruce A. Weinberg, 2001. "Creating Modern Art: The Changing Careers of Painters in France from Impressionism to Cubism," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(4), pages 1063-1071, September.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • O3 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights
    • O4 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity
    • J2 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor
    • I2 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education

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