by Lynn S. Schwebach
A pernicious, low-level anxiety has settled like pond scum on my creative impulse, and it stems from growing up with the depressing axiom that creativity diminishes with age.
Those front and center in middle age—namely baby boomers—heard the age and low- creativity toxin so many times that many of us took it as truth. I thought about this axiom in October 2015 as I drove to a Don Henley concert at the Bellco Theater in Denver, Colorado. He had just released Cass County, his first solo album in 15 years—and was 68 at the time. As I drove to the concert, I kept recalculating my age in relation to Henley’s. Would I like his new stuff, or only enjoy his old hits and Eagles repeats? Could he still innovate in his 60s?
After opening with one of his hits from the 1980s, “Dirty Laundry,” and then playing a few of the songs off of his new album, it became apparent that Henley’s creativity continues to produce new, fresh and unique work. He sounded like Henley, with his penchant for introspective lyrics and storytelling, but something was different. The music wasn’t pure rock or pure country, or country-rock. It wasn’t pure blues, although you could hear blues-inspired riffs. Instead, you detected elements from each genre.
Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “Written and produced with Stan Lynch, the original drummer in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Cass County is meticulously crafted, sharply written and absolutely free of neo-country additives like reheated Seventies-rock bombast and Twitter-verse vernacular.”
The album and Henley’s 11 original songs (plus a few covers) speak to originality and novelty—hallmarks of genuine creativity. And Henley told Billy Joel in an interview at New York City’s 92nd Street Y that iTunes couldn’t categorize the album, which “is fine with him.” Well said—because the inability to categorize new artistic work is yet another ingredient for authentic, groundbreaking creativity.
As I listened to Henley that night, I wondered how the theory that creativity declines with age became so pervasive—so I did some exploring.
I discovered that initial studies on aging and creativity focused on quantitative creative output rather than qualitative output. Past researchers also used timed tests that focused on one component of creativity, such as divergent thinking, and compared the results of older participants to those of younger. The results from these tests strongly suggested that creativity diminishes after the age of 40 or 50—peaking in the 30s.
Thankfully, there are skeptics and recent studies are debunking that narrow-minded theory.
The book, “The Fine Arts, Neurology and Neuroscience: New Discoveries and Changing Landscapes,” cited research by Jock Abra, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Calgary, and a renowned creativity expert. Abra contends that rather than decline, creativity might instead change as “different stylistic and thematic concerns gain priority.”
Additionally, artists themselves refute the theory of diminishing creativity. A study reported in the Creativity Research Journal examined 88 well -respected graphic artists in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. These artists felt more confident today because they had conquered the technical aspects of their craft, allowing them to spend more time with self-expression and experimentation. Their art was improving as they aged—as judged by graphic arts experts.
Authors Martin S. Lindauer, professor emeritus of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Brockport, Lucinda Orwoll, and M. Catherine Kelley, noted “the artists did not feel bound by trying to live up to others’ standards or conventions as they might have when younger.”
Irene Reed, a gerontologist at the Institute of Gerontology, St. Joseph College, confirmed these findings. She studied 21 artists of various media, ages 53 to 75, and in the article “Creativity: Self-Perceptions Over Time,” wrote that their knowledge and experience had become integrated with age, expanding their creativity.
And when told that some of the existing research suggested that creativity declines with age, most of them laughed. One participant commented: “Maybe they ought to change those tests!”
Another 63-year-old woman participant commented: “I think for me, and it’s probably that way for many artists, [creativity] is a spiritual journey. It’s like trying to find out who you are; it’s expressing where you are at the moment; it’s moving through your life and reflecting on what’s going on in your life and trying to find the essence.”
Henley has toured the U.S. and Europe for the past 18 months and will travel to Australia and New Zealand in March for numerous concerts. The album has sold 259,400 copies in the U.S (as of August 2016). But I don’t think at this stage of his career, Henley perseverates much over sales statistics. He has said in numerous interviews that he enjoyed making Cass County more than any other album. As he opines in his song, “Where I Am” on the Cass County album: “When people say ‘Would you go back?’ I say, ‘No way, nohow’ because I like where I am now.”
And that should inspire and motivate all aging artists—and dispense with the creative pond scum anxiety once and for all.