Work

Contrary to the “Dead at 45” Theory, a New Study Suggests That Career Peaks Can Happen at Any Age

An older woman paints in a studio.
Masterworks can be produced at any age.
shironosov/Thinkstock

If you’ve ever watched someone your age—or worse, younger—rack up accomplishment after accomplishment and been struck with both bitter resentment and existential dread then … come sit by me. Luckily, a recent study published in Nature has some good news for those of us who spend our free time wondering when we’ll finally peak—or fearing that, by virtue of age, we already have. Inspired by Einstein’s “miracle year,” wherein he finished three different papers that radically shifted our understanding of time and space, a team of researchers examined the careers of almost 30,000 scientists, artists, and directors to find out whether their highest-impact works were scattered randomly across their careers or if each person had a “specific period during which [their] performance [was] substantially better than his or her typical performance.”

The researchers found that a whopping 90 percent of those included in the study had produced their three highest-impact works—defined for scientists as their most cited papers, artists as their most expensive artwork, and directors as their highest-rated movies on IMDb—in close proximity to each other. The length of this golden era depended on the field: For scientists, the average was around 3.7 years, for directors 5.2, and for artists 5.7. The team labeled the phenomenon a “hot streak” and found that it was as random as it was ubiquitous. Almost everyone was likely to experience one, but the hot streak’s timing was completely unpredictable; it was as likely to occur in a scientist’s later years as in their early years. And counter to conventional wisdom, the hot streak didn’t correlate with the time period in which they were most prolific. In this case, quality won out over quantity.

Less than 25 percent of artists and scientists experienced a second hot streak in their lives and less than 10 percent of film directors did, which would seem to support the sense that most of us only get to peak once. But because the hot streak doesn’t seem to correlate with either age or productivity, the study’s findings suggest that we reimagine when we usually expect it to happen. There is an insidious and pervasive feeling that the best years of our lives exist somewhere between the ages of 27 and 45, give or take a few years. That is the implicit message of both 40-under-40 lists and age discrimination in the workplace: Once you’re past those solidly middle-age years, your days of accomplishment must be long behind you. The Nature study turns that assumption upside down and effectively says that it doesn’t matter where you are in your career—there’s still time to make great work.

That’s very good news, especially for those who decide to enter second or third careers and worry that their highest-impact years may be behind them or for those who fret about squandering the “best” years of their lives doing something they don’t necessarily see panning out long-term. “The traditional way of thinking is that once you pass 45 years old, the chance for a breakthrough is lower,” said the lead author of the study, Dashun Wang, in an interview with the New York Times. But in fact: “As long as you keep producing, your best work may be yet to come.” If that isn’t good news in a culture obsessed with the notion of youth being squandered on the young, then I don’t know what is.