How To Plan Your Career as You Age

It’s a sad but essentially unavoidable fact that as you age many of your cognitive abilities decline. And this of course negatively impacts your ability to perform on the job. The July issue of The Atlantic highlighted this phenomenon with an article alarmingly entitled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” Yikes!

That’s because as you age processes like stress and associated inflammation, cumulative exposure to harmful environmental factors and a reduction in hormone levels impair memory, processing speed, and reasoning ability. Studies differ as to when and how serious cognitive decline appears, but it appears that it generally begins to be noticeable in one’s 50s.

But a closer look at brain function shows that there are broadly two types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized, and it is the former that suffers decline with age. Fluid intelligence was defined long ago by British psychologist Raymond Cattell as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems. That’s the kind of intelligence that propels innovation and invention. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to use the knowledge accumulated from past experience and learning. It doesn’t significantly diminish until what is generally quite late in life.

So, “if your profession requires mental processing speeds or significant analytical capabilities – the kind of professions most college graduates occupy – noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine”. But “you can (and should) endeavor to weight your career….towards the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.” In other words, emphasize your wisdom rather than your ingenuity.

The Biggest Mistake

“The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishments indefinitely, trying to make use of the kind of fluid intelligence that begins fading relatively early in life.” In practical terms, what this suggests is that if you’re in your 50s (or perhaps even late 40s) and in occupations like IT, marketing, engineering, and many aspects of consulting, you probably need to begin planning to transition to the kind of work that will rely less on fluid intelligence and more on crystallized intelligence. What kind of work would that be? Examples include teaching, counseling, financial advising, mentoring and coaching, training, and hospitality.

While it can, of course, be valuable to enhance your skills through taking courses and earning certifications, that’s essentially swimming upstream against the current of natural fluid intelligence decline. Better to invest your time and financial resources in preparing for a transition to a career in which your accumulated wisdom will be valued far more than your probably diminished ability to ideate, analyze, problem-solve, or invent.