The Age of Invention

How does aging affect a person’s creativity? Brandeis researchers are compiling new insights through an analysis of an unusual source of data: patents.

The study — which examined the more than 3.6 million U.S. patents granted between 1976-2017 — found older inventors are more likely to rely on their knowledge and experience, and build on novel applications of past inventions, displaying what psychologists call “crystallized intelligence.” Younger inventors are more likely to submit patents that are forward-looking, and rely on abstract reasoning and novel problem solving, traits of “fluid intelligence.”

Study findings will be published in January in the journal Research Policy. The research was led by Adam Jaffe, professor emeritus of economics, and Margie Lachman, the Minnie and Harold Fierman Professor of Psychology, along with Mary Kaltenberg, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis and now an assistant professor of economics at Pace University.

In general, the researchers found, patent filers were most productive in their invention creation during midlife. However, some inventors continued to be productive well into their 60s or beyond, and 22% of first-time filers were over 50.

“The findings suggest we shouldn’t assume that creativity and inventiveness are only possible in early adulthood or early middle age,” Lachman says.

Two categories the researchers studied — “backward citations,” in which an inventor drew on previously filed patents to develop something new, and “originality,” which denoted a broad range of fields within a given patent — both increased with the age of an inventor.

Younger patent filers, on the other hand, were more likely to file patents that received more “forward citations,” meaning the work was referenced in future inventions. They were also more likely to file patents viewed as “disruptive,” that is, belonging to an emerging or likely-to-emerge field.

Lachman is a psychologist who studies the cognitive changes that come with aging, examining both the aspects that improve with age and those that decline. Most of this research has involved discovering age patterns through the use of lab-based cognitive tests. She thought perhaps a patents analysis could provide real-world insight. When she approached Jaffe, an economist who has studied patents and innovation for decades, he told her not much was known about patents in relation to aging.

“It was surprising to me that when you apply for a patent, they do not ask for a birth date or age,” Lachman says. “My wheels started turning.”

Because inventors do not disclose their age on patent filings, the Brandeis research team included a programmer who scraped the web to match patent filers with publicly available information that identified their age. A group of undergraduate researchers in Lachman’s Lifespan Lab checked the results and worked to resolve conflicting information. As a result, researchers were able to compile a database of inventors’ ages, which could provide fertile ground for future studies.

For instance, Jaffe and Lachman’s study examined patents filed by teams as well as by individuals. Teams that included a wider diversity of ages were shown to have slightly higher rates of forward citations. Additional research could shed more light on how teams with members of varying ages work together. “We think this is an area that is worth exploring,” says Lachman.

Jaffe and Lachman’s research was supported by a 2017-19 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Working Longer program, which sought to “deepen scholarly, policy, and public understanding of older Americans’ labor market activities, and find ways to facilitate employment of those who need or want to work beyond conventional retirement ages.”