Back To Author’s Lounge

Reflections : The Age Of Wisdom

By Anil Dharker

01st January 2021

New Year celebrations, to borrow a phrase, are the triumph of hope over experience. We dance, we toot, we fling our arms in the air and wish each other Happy New Year overlooking in our cheerful enthusiasm one irrefutable fact: whatever the disposition of the year gone by and the one to come, you and I and everyone else is irrevocably, permanently and with one hundred per cent certainty, one year older. In a world which belongs to the young (as we are continuously told), that should be depressing, and yet we engage in boisterous festivity.

However, should those of us over 60 really mourn the passing of time? A recent study by the respected New England Journal of Medicine should be music to your ears if you are at the stage where people call you a senior citizen. The study found that the most productive phase for people is between 60 and 70 years of age. The second most productive is, an even bigger surprise, 70 to 80 years, and the third most is between 50 and 60 years. Apparently, we reach the peak of our potential at 60 and continue at a high level till 80. This, of course, makes a mockery of the mandated retirement age in most countries—in India, that’s 60, in most European countries, it’s 65, Russia makes it 60.5 (and 55.5 for women), in China it’s 60 for men and 50 for women, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, obviously following their own logic, retire people at 64.083 and 62.833 years respectively. Libya, of all countries, has the highest retirement age of 70, while Sri Lanka has the lowest at 55. In short, wherever you are, you are put to pasture just when you are rarin’ to go.

Does creativity reduce as we grow older? Mozart, Chopin and Schubert all died in their 30s and yet produced masterpieces that enthral us even today. That may be an argument for the creativity of youth, but let us remember that Mozart’s best works (The Magic Flute, Clarinet Concerto, Symphonies 40 and 41 and The Requiem) were all composed towards the end of his life. The same goes for Schubert (Symphonies 8 and 9, his last three Piano Sonatas). We can say that even of composers who lived longer: Beethoven died at 56, but it is his Ninth Symphony that is regarded as the greatest of them all. Similarly, Haydn, who lived to the ripe old age of 77, is remembered for his last few works, particularly Symphony No 92 and the Second Cello Concerto.

In 1963, British-American psychologist Raymond Cattell introduced the concept of ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallised intelligence’. Fluid intelligence, the ability to solve new problems or make revolutionary discoveries, is highest when people are in their 20s and 30s: Einstein published four groundbreaking papers including his Theory of Relativity, at 26; Newton was 22 when he discovered Gravity and Stephen Hawking was 28 when he formulated his theory of Black Holes. Srinivasa Ramanujan lived to only 33 but made remarkable contributions to mathematical theory. The first three lived well past their 70s and continued to make substantial contributions to science till the end, but their path-breaking discoveries came at the height of their fluid intelligence. As we grow older, we move into the phase of crystallised intelligence, which includes heightened verbal reasoning and an accumulation of acquired knowledge and experience.

These concepts apply across all creative fields: the ones who come up with radical new ideas (defined as ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’) are alarmingly young: Orson Welles was just 26 when he made Citizen Kane, Pablo Picasso moved to Cubism at 28 and Sylvia Plath was only 31 when she stuck her head in the oven, but had already published her two works of seminal poetry. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Paul Cézanne and Alfred Hitchcock did their best work in their later years.

For some reason, which science must really investigate, conductors live really long, so they are prime ‘specimens’ to study how the human brain changes with age. Zubin Mehta became Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 26 when he was likened to ‘Prospero at the centre of the storm, summoning forth thunder and lightning.’ Would it not be odd if at 84, he continued to be just as exuberant and dynamic? Think of Lorin Maazel, child prodigy, when he debuted at eight. Would we not expect him to grow musically as he grew older, and wouldn’t it be strange if a lifetime teeming with experiences changed nothing in the way he felt music? Could Toscanini, who lived to be 90, and had premiered La bohème and Turandot, not see Verdi’s music differently in his old age? Of course they all did, each of them changing in their own individual ways to bring a mature vision into their later work.

So I end, happily contradicting myself. Youth is good; without its flashes of brilliance, the world would be a poorer place. But youth is only a stepping stone to the age of being slow and wise. So if we throw our hats in the air to celebrate the passing of yet another year, it’s okay, it’s okay