Demographics, Productivity, and Innovation
The relationship between the demographics of a nation and its ability to innovate and be highly productive is a fascinating subject for discussion. Since innovation is central to growth, and productivity could well separate the winners from the losers, the people profile of a nation may provide valuable clues as to the potential for sustained growth.
For an alternate perspective, please read Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld's column in Fortune today titled "Silicon Valley's Peter Pan Syndrome vs. the Aging of Aquarius." The learned scholar systematically de-constructs the mythical relationship between creativity and aging by providing some thoughtful examples: Research by Northwestern University economist Benjamin Jones indicating Nobel laureates since 1985 having created their prize-winning work at an average age of 45, and the fact that virtually no physicist or chemist has won the Nobel prize for work done in their 30s or earlier in their lives; Copernicus offered his general theory of the universe at age 70; Alfred Hitchcock directed his masterpiece Vertigo when he was 59; Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater when he was 68; Benjamin Franklin co-authored the Declaration of Independence at 70; and the great pianist Claudio Arrau was playing as well as he ever had well into his eighties.
Professor Sonnenfeld observes that youth is no guarantee of brilliance and age does not ensure wisdom - nor dementia. At the most recent Yale CEO Summit (Professor Sonnenfeld is a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management), the theme was "disruption" but they did not celebrate the Silicon Valley wunderkinds but rather a set of inspiring septuagenarians and octogenarians - all of whom are still active champions of new enterprises.
My take is that for a society to succeed consistently, the quality of its human resources is more critical than either the quantity or the demographic profile. I have witnessed young people in their late 20s and early 30s reaching the burnout stage and being forced to seek medical help. I have also witnessed people in their 70s and 80s with so much enthusiasm and the ability to adapt to changing environments that they would be ideal role models for others. Thus, at a time when questions such as "What if all of us were to live up to 100?" are no longer theoretical, we would do well to stop looking at age as a limiting factor. Instead, the metric to use is more qualitative - the ethos and values that are embedded in people of all age groups. I would humbly submit that societies that follow the doctrine of humanism - the greatest good of the largest number, in letter and spirit - would be the ultimate winners in the holistic sense of the term. On the other hand, if we continue to measure success purely in economic terms, caring only about the ends and not about the means, we would only be enhancing the chasms that already exist.