What’s my age again? How creativity changes as we age

Cover Image - What’s my age again?
WordsAmelia Abraham
ArtworkAude Bertrand

Depending on our own anxieties as artists, we might believe that we’re never at the right age—younger artists can be more fearless and dedicate more time to their practice, older artists have experience and the support of the establishment. But each era has strengths inherent to it psychologically and socially-speaking. Here, writer Amelia Abraham charts the decades of an artist’s life and how age changes creativity.

“The whole thing is mighty mysterious,” the painter Maggi Hambling says as she muses on creativity. “Why can I work for days or weeks on a painting and have to destroy it, and then suddenly the painting will paint itself?” 

At 77 years old, Hambling has learned that while this process—one that is likely familiar to anyone working in the arts—is frustrating, it’s “exactly how it should be”. Call it trial and error, creative catharsis, or “trusting the process”, we can’t cough up the goods all the time (and if you do, congratulations). For most creatives, the ongoing battle between creativity and productivity can make creating fraught, especially when there are bills to pay. For a new mother, whose ability to spend time writing or in the studio is limited, the pressure to create might feel weightier than for others. For someone later in life, urgency may take over—a feeling Hambling says she is experiencing, as she paints with more fervor than ever before.

Age undoubtedly affects our creativity, our output and our feelings around ambition, even if the web of social, psychological and biological factors shaping our lives look different for everyone. Science, overall, suggests that we become less creative as we grow older, but the real story is not so simple. That’s because no two creatives are the same, just as the world that we create in is in a constant state of flux. Still, it’s surely worth unpicking some of the stereotypes and expectations that come with age and creating, to unleash more of our collective creativity. So, we asked the experts and the artists to weigh in. How does creativity ebb and flow across our lifetimes? What are the benefits of staying creative as we age? Most importantly, what can we do to nurture our creative practices with age in mind?

The teens to the twenties

Cast your mind back to childhood. You knew very little but your imagination was vast. It seemed totally plausible that a pig could talk or an elephant could fly. In a series of studies on creativity, researchers found that when given a series of tasks, preschoolers were more creative in the way they problem-solved, whereas adolescents and adults looked to reason, usually with more accurate results. In their paper, the researchers summed this up neatly: Exploration gives way to exploitation of knowledge. In other words, experience takes over, and throughout our lives, as we have more of it, it will both inform our creativity and temper it with “shoulds” instead of “coulds”. 

The London-based artist Rene Matić began making work at the age of 20, and at 25, became the youngest artist ever in the Tate collection. They partly credit what we might call “the naivety of youth” for their success. “The only thing that I’ve ever wanted to do is be an artist, and I didn’t really know what that meant or what that looked like. I have no other career. I have no other skills. There was really nothing to lose, but everything to gain. I think a lack of fear, and an open-mindedness to ideas, has been very helpful to me.” 

There are also outside forces that have influenced their creativity as a young person in the artworld. “Everyone likes to ‘discover’ the next big thing first,” says Matić, for better or worse. “That makes me question what part of my success has been tokenization, and not just for being young, but my being working class, Black, queer.” This can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, as well as more material challenges. “Being young and working class meant having no money to fall back on, so I did other jobs to sustain my practice, and that could limit time making work in the studio.” 

Their creativity has been at its best, they explain, when they have managed to ignore outside pressures, like “the stress of worrying that the practice could not sustain itself long term” or “comparing myself to artists who are ten years older.” One way through has been actively learning from artists who have longer careers. “I don’t think that I would be where I am now without intergenerational conversations with more privileged people who are also more knowledgeable of the industry.” These people are older, and they are often quick to remind Matić of their young age, which can be patronizing, but is something Matić is also proud of. Hence the joke in their Instagram bio: “Yungest artist in the world”. 

Looking back on his twenties, the artist and filmmaker Bafic, now 30, views it as a decade where he learned to overcome—or at least reframe—his own sense of imposter syndrome. “There’s always the question of; ‘Am I capable of doing this?’ or ‘Am I meant to be here?’ We always talk about imposter syndrome as a negative but I think to show something due respect is to understand it from the inside out. With the creative journey, I’ve learned that imposter syndrome is actually healthy in moderation; I have to feel uncomfortable or out of my depth because that’s where I make the biggest leaps.” In that sense, he says, “we’re our own worst enemy but our best client.”

30 and 40s

Experts who have studied creative accomplishments throughout the life cycle have overarchingly found that creatives peak between the late 30s and early 40s. One 2023 study confirmed this to be true by cross-referencing over a million US inventors with the ages at which they took out patents for their inventions. Most were taken out in the 30s and 40s, with inventions peaking around 40 for men and women. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the same study found that the nature of inventions changed with age; invention attributes related to experience (more backward citations) increased with age, patent attributes related to creativity (forward citations, disruptiveness) fell with age. 

When you “peak” might therefore depend on what type of creator you are (rather than, say, your field). As Malcolm Gladwell once wrote (and as recent research from Ohio University concurs) conceptual artists—poets, painters and novelists—are more likely to enjoy creative success when younger, especially if they have more specific goals. Experimental thinkers, who operate through trial and error, may have to wait a little later. Overall, psychologists generally explain that “success” tends to happen in our 30s and 40s because we grow more able to effectively navigate challenges and because we learn to adapt to social norms and accepted ways of thinking, better understanding what will get us that next commission or sale.

As for my own ambition, as an author in their early thirties who has been especially lazy and stifled of late, I could jump in here, and say that while the above might be true, there are other challenges that come with getting older. In my twenties, I felt energetic, worked on my book each morning before my day job, not to mention on weekends—my ambition. I wanted to prove myself, to make a mark. Bafic relates, explaining “dreaming is easy, it costs you nothing: except 13 seconds staring out of the window, but most of the work is the millions of small tasks that you have to do to help you get to that dream.” When I was younger, I also felt more impassioned and emotional, which I channeled into my work, which was more raw and candid. Overall, now I feel more relaxed about creating—almost too relaxed. I am distracted by life admin, house work, relationships. What would I do if I had kids, I sometimes wonder. Would I get even less done?

Hettie Judah, writer, art critic and author of “How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents)”, a book on careers, caregiving and creativity, is currently working on another book, “Art and Motherhood”. For the artists she’s spoken to, and in her own personal experience, being a new parent doesn’t always have to take away from the creative practice. “When I had small children, I could only get say two hours away to write, and in that time I was extremely productive. You get more done in a short space of time because you have no choice.” (Although, she acknowledges time away is dependent on number of children, being a single parent versus shared carer, and economic circumstances). Bafic, now a father, agrees: “A friend had warned me that it’s a life hack, and it’s true: it makes you trim a lot of fat.” 

If Judah could impart one general piece of advice, it would be fostering the belief that you can take a break from your creative practice and come back to it. “I think we’re in this culture at the moment where it feels like if you don’t grab things now they will be gone and that’s very bad for our mental health. People go into experiences like motherhood and think everything is going to fall apart if they take two or three years off, leading to a constant struggle between being a parent and the demands of a creative life. If you can, give yourself permission not to be full steam ahead all the time, think of it as a research period.” 

What about the rest of us in our 30s and 40s struggling with creativity? Research shows there are practical things we can do to massage the creativity muscle. Meditation helps. In a study of 600 people who meditate by author and Georgetown University psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, 83 percent reported that they’ve become more creative through meditation. Despite the stereotype that spontaneity leads to creativity, some imposed structure has been proven to show creative benefits, too. Failing that, taking time out to stimulate your creativity with an “artist’s date” can also be effective: do one thing a week like visiting a gallery or listening to an album the whole way through. In other words, when life gets in the way, simply prioritizing creativity—and the things that inspire it—are super important.

Join the club

Like this story? You’ll (probably) love our monthly newsletter.

50s and 60s

A prevalent view of older adults is that they are less creative and productive than younger adults—a notion that plenty of research has backed up (TLDR: we can blame the neurodegenerative decline of the prefrontal cortex). Perhaps this is why the internet is awash with motivational listicles about people who made it “later in life”. We’ve all heard the supposedly reassuring factoids; “J.R. Tolkien didn’t write “Lord of The Rings” until he was 62”. There might be something in this. Mention the 50s and 60s to experts on creativity and an idea recurs—not just the idea of “the late bloomer” but the idea of the “rebirth”. 

“Something that’s had a huge impact on my creativity is my children moving out of home,” says Judah. “Looking after a family isn’t just making sure everyone has clothes on their backs and utility bills are paid, you’re playing a tetris game in your head making sure everything is sorted out. It occupies an enormous amount of your thinking space. Afterwards, so much of your brain energy, chronological time and physical space can become available. I’m using one of my kids’ bedrooms now as a studio.” As highlighted in her recent exhibition “Re-Naissance”, this means that for many women in particular, the 50s can lead to a “tremendous birth of creativity” at “a time when we’re found completely unexciting and uninteresting by society.” Artists like Emma Franks or Lesley Banks come to mind as women who have been mothers and have had “a lot of time to think about the work and then they suddenly explode when they get into the studio, capable of avant garde art, or work that is daring and exciting.”

According to the psychotherapist and author Andrew Jamieson, perhaps surprisingly, the midlife crisis can also be a rebirth. We can think of this as a kind of despondency, a sense that a lot of things have been left undone in terms of relationships, achievements or creativity. In particular, Jameison sees a lot of clients who are particularly men in their late 50s and early 60s trying to leave their professional responsibilities behind and who feel they have neglected their creativity. In the 17th and 18th centuries, explains Jameison, “melancholia” was seen as a profound state that could lead to a period of self-examination. “A midlife crisis can produce opportunities, it’s a graunching gear change that has to be done. Creativity—especially when it wasn’t encouraged earlier in life by your parents—becomes a way to find out what your true authentic needs are that have been kept out of view.” Self expression leads to self discovery. “It’s very psychologically rewarding when you’re in touch with your creativity. It produces serotonin, dopamine, and sometimes oxytocin and keeps the stress hormones at bay.” 

Creativity doesn’t have to be part of your working life, it could mean waking up and playing Bach for two hours or writing each morning before work. You could do as Maggi Hambling does: she wakes up at 5 or 6am each morning and paints a drawing in her sketchbook with the stopper of a bottle of ink and her left hand (she’s right-handed). “It’s a bit like a pianist doing the scales, it's to renew the sense of touch. Most importantly, it also surprises,” she adds. If creativity is, from childhood, tempered by knowledge—or the idea of “right and wrong”—finding ways to free ourselves from the latter can unleash creativity that is unbridled.

The 60s and beyond

When she wasn’t drawing with her left hand, Hambling could usually be found with a cigarette in it. After smoking from the age of fourteen until 76, she experienced a severe heart attack. (Now, it’s vapes only). Back in the studio after six weeks in hospital, she found herself more creative than ever before—the product of which will be on view at her next show, “Maelstrom”. Her energy has not waned throughout her life, says Hambling, something which she puts down to routine. “Doing something creative every day makes it become like breathing—natural.” 

If the stereotype goes that age impacts our creativity, scientists have found otherwise—unless physically or cognitively impaired, there’s no reason why we need to slow down. Our life expectancies have increased over the centuries, says Andrew Steele, author of the book “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old”, meaning many of the health conditions we are up against are new too. However, the same biological processes happen in all of us, at different speeds and with different effects. Steele’s advice for staying creative from a health perspective is to stay social, learn a language (to exercise the brain’s learning pathways), exercise (which can help ward off dementia due to improving blood flow, as well as increasing stamina) and even brushing your teeth well (given that gum disease has been linked to dementia).

Looking back on a seven decade career, Hambling considers her best advice for staying creative. “[Constantin] Brancusi said it wasn’t difficult to make a work of art but it is difficult being in the right state to do it. For me, that’s a mixture of being totally concentrated and not giving a damn.” Her mentor, the painter Arthur Lett-Haines, gave her another golden piece of advice: “If you’re going to be an artist you have to make your work your best friend. Whatever you’re feeling—tired, energetic, sad, lonely, randy—go to your work and have a conversation with it and that’s how I’ve lived my life.”