Creative Careers: The Life Cycles of Nobel Laureates in Economics

Bruce A. Weinberg, Department of Economics, Ohio State University, Columbus

At what stage of their careers are scholars most creative? Even beyond its
intellectual challenge, this question has obvious practical significance. If they do not ask
it in any other context, most scholars consider it in evaluating appointments and
promotions in their own departments, as they try to assess the likely future path of other
scholars’ research.
In view of the practical importance of the life cycle of scholarly creativity, it is
surprising that it has received little systematic study, and virtually none by economists.
This may be because many academics think they already understand it. Many
economists, for example, appear to believe creativity is the particular domain of the
young. One prominent economist, President Lawrence Summers of Harvard University,
vetoed offers of tenured professorships to two 54-year-old scholars out of concern for
what the university’s dean of the faculty called the problem of “extinct volcanoes.” In
support of Summers, a 35-year-old professor of earth sciences explained that “It’s more
exciting to be around a place where things are going on now - not a place where people
have done important things in the past.” (Golden 2002).
There is a systematic relationship between age and scholarly creativity, but it is
more complex than many academics appear to assume. By studying the careers of a
group of Nobel laureates in economics, we will show that there are two distinct life
cycles of scholarly creativity, with peaks at very different stages. The evidence
furthermore reveals that which path a scholar follows is related to the nature of his work.
This understanding of the life cycles of innovative economists constitutes an important
step toward a theory of human creativity in general.

Date: 05 October-00 0000