As if you needed more discouraging news, here’s this: Your professional decline looms closer than you think. That’s the conclusion Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, reached after studying research on career accomplishment.
According to the research he cited in The Atlantic earlier this year, our success and productivity increase for about 20 years after the start of a career. Then, like a short airplane ride to a nearby city, our descent begins much sooner than we expect.
It doesn’t just happen to athletes: Even scientists, artists, tech workers, air traffic controllers, and umpires experience a drop.
Research indicates that among scientists, major discoveries continue to increase into one’s late 30s and then begin a steady decline. Poets peak in their early 40s. The best performing umpires are 33 years old. Air traffic controllers are required to retire at 56 since their decline is so pronounced.
These statistics would be a downer, except they come with a giant caveat. Two different forms of intelligence propel human work, and only one declines. The other actually increases with age.
The first, fluid intelligence, is the heavy lifting kind of intelligence associated with analytical rigor and solving complex problems. The second, crystallized intelligence, is the ability to synthesize a massive library of practical knowledge and discern how to apply it. For instance, the best teachers, counselors, mentors, and coaches are much older, and this may not diminish even into one’s 70s and 80s. In biblical categories, you could call it wisdom.
What might this mean for the church?
First, with 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day in the United States, perhaps the most underutilized resource in the church is the accumulated wisdom (crystallized intelligence) of retirees. For any church, a key stewardship is connecting the generations to one another.
Second, churches interested in offering vocational discernment and help to members of aging generations can encourage them to explore ways to crystallize the wisdom they have gained through many years of experience. From handling disappointment at work to dealing with prodigal teenagers, wisdom is best passed along when it is articulated.
Third, young adults, high on intellectual horsepower and curiosity, can remember the importance of humbling themselves to receive wisdom from older generations.
Fourth, younger generations could be encouraged to explore problems in their career fields and in the church, stewarding the unique energy and propensity they have to tackle challenging issues. They also need opportunities from older workers to engage their minds in difficult problems.
In God’s design, the journey of aging need not lead to diminishing opportunities. Instead, the constraint of aging paves the way for God to be at work through us in new ways, as we pass on wisdom that takes a lifetime to accumulate. From here, there is no decline.