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At what age do you reach your peak?

October 8, 2008

When people should retire is a burning question. In the field of sports it is easier to measure an individual’s “peak.” With Saurav Ganguly for instance, the writing has been on the wall for some time now. Although no one can deny his mental strengths, the balance between the physical and mental had to be struck.

Mental capacities are harder to evaluate…who can say when exactly a person reaches his mental peak? Take the example of Shane Warne. He may not be at his peak physically, but his mental toughness and  leadership qualities brought him success in the last IPL.

What about other professions where there is less emphasis on physical skills? What are mental skills anyway? Here is a tentative list – and yes, sports people would need most of these too, in addition to their physical skills.

  • Ability to grasp ideas and concepts
  • Good memory
  • Mental alertness
  • Concentration
  • Judgment– experience adds to this ability
  • Ability to take quick decisions – again experience helps here
  • Vision
  • Ability to withstand and work under pressure
  • Creative abilities

You use your mind and it keeps in shape, just like your body does. And while mental abilities start to deteriorate with age, like physical abilities, when it happens varies with different people. It can happen at any point in a person’s life. Even at 35. If a person does a dead end job and does not bother to keep up with mental pursuits it can happen…diet and biological factors also play a role.

And a lot depends on what ability an individual has to begin with. Even creativity is not a prerogative of the young… Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa at 60.

Bias against older people
Even though mental ability is difficult to measure and can remain intact well into the person’s sixties, there is a bias against older people. If one had to generalise, then perhaps more youngsters have a sharper memory and a greater alertness level as compared to those above 50, but do they necessarily have better judgment as well? Are they better decision makers as well? If not, then defining mental peak becomes difficult…because it all depends on what kind of mental abilities are required on the job.

At one time in India the bias worked the other way. Youngsters (below the age of 25) were considered greenhorns and therefore it was the “wiser” older people who were considered “better” at their jobs. But I strongly disagree with this idea as well. Many young people have excellent judgment and decision making ability. In fact any assumption that an older person has more sense irritates me.

The bias against older people has something to do with personality traits as well. I am listing a few which people feel could be in short supply in older people:

Ability to listen
Being open to new ideas and to change
A democratic style of management
Calmness and control

Do older people (45+) have fewer of these qualities as compared to younger people? I don’t think so, but why else are organisations hesitating to hire them? I have personally seen rigidity (of mind) across all age-groups. If you come across a rigid sixty year old, it’s worth finding out what he/she was like at 30.

In fact it is thought that the “mature” brain is “better able to access right and left brain simultaneously and more fully…The mature brain benefits from developmental intelligence, which [has been] defined as the maturing of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and consciousness and their integration and synergy…”

Demand vs supply
Take a look at the graph below. More than half our population is young…and I think that could be the reason for the bias against older people in India. Young people are available in plenty and as people believe that those over 40 are over the hill (unless they are applying for a job as CEO), youngsters are preferred.

Barely 15 percent of our population works beyond retirement age today, and even in the future this figure is not likely to change drastically. In fact most of those working beyond retirement age have their own businesses or are employed in family owned enterprises.

ThIs is in contrast to those in the UK and the USA. According to U.S. Census figures, one out of five men over 65 is in a paid job . And in the UK, the number of working people beyond the retirement age is set to double (over 1 million are already working beyond the state pension age) over the next five years. And about 80 percent of Japanese are believed to work beyond retirement age. But then their population graphs look different:

(All these graphs are from the US Census and at the site you can get the latest population graphs of all countries of the world, now and projected)

Related Reading: Job discrimination at the workplace
Pitfalls of stereotyping and objectifying people
Ageing is not a disease
Emotional Intelligence increases with age

(Tomorrow is Dasera and it will be a holiday for this blog. I wish all my readers a very happy Dasera)

26 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2008 6:12 pm

    I think you cannot generalize the peak age.

    Why is there a term called retirement age?? why it has got an age factor associated? When you say retirement age is 58 or 60 , does it mean a person has reached his peak? he cannot work further? he is not capable of working??

    There can be some qualities which you can relate to age but making retirement mandatory at 58 or 60 is ridiculuos.

    Why is there a lower age limit for president of India? So does Indian constitution thinks young people are not good enough to take the post?

  2. October 8, 2008 6:14 pm

    wow… I am the first to comment again… 2 times in a row..

  3. October 8, 2008 7:27 pm

    Hmmmm I think if you can do the job it does not matter what your age is. Often in the Japanese countryside it is common to see 70 or 80 year old people planting and harvesting rice. A Japanese man or a woman who may be middle aged may still be at his or her peak. Physical and mental ability depends a lot on your diet and your genes.

    Anyway I would not consider the age of a person before I hire them as long as they are the best person for the job. Someone else might.

  4. October 8, 2008 8:25 pm

    ahh.. for once again we do agree on something odzer 🙂

  5. October 8, 2008 8:52 pm

    nice post..
    surprising to see that in japan and UK ppl work even at their older different from india ..
    but as u said its because we have more in the younder age group and i also feel that ppl in india follow it as a rule ..get into job early…work for 30 years /..retire ..
    dont know why !!!

  6. October 8, 2008 8:53 pm

    IT also depends on the type of work u do …

  7. October 8, 2008 9:41 pm

    Hmm…well my grand father is 75,almost 76 and he still goes to court 🙂 And well his memory is better than any comps 🙂

    But yes,i think each one reaches their peak,at different times,mainly because the job they do,might make it so and they personally might become best for the job,during a particular time period in their life 🙂

  8. Vipul permalink
    October 8, 2008 10:20 pm


    Interesting post. I feel there are a few factors that can explain the difference between the west and India –
    1. Cultural – India: The feeling that once children are settled / working etc. they take care /support parents. Parents can therefore ‘retire’. Thats obviously not the case in the west.

    2. Fitness levels / independence: The fitness level / mobility and independence of the 60+ population in the west far exceeds that of India.

    3. Financial: State driven pension programs can alter the retirement age based upon funding deficits. In the UK where state provides a fixed annuity based on ones contributions, retirement age (age where one is eligible for pension benefits) has increased from 55 in the past to 65 currently (for men) and is expected to reach 68 after 20 years.

    Some generalities above, but hope you get the drift.

  9. October 8, 2008 10:35 pm

    The type of work is a big factor. Like the retirement for people in public sector industries is 60 and I think its correct as industrial job is a great deal of strain and requires alertness and physical fitness. 30 years of job in a steel plant and not at an administrative position is almost twice or thrice the effort as an IT job of 30 years!! Even if an individual may feel fit to continue he./she should not be allowed to do so purely for health reasons.

    Now coming to a teaching job, we have a retirement age of 70 as given by AICTE (for private colleges) but it all depends on the individual that how he/she copes with old age and teaching. I have seen only boring, old fashioned professors who are not able to connect with the youth. But there may be energetic and dynamic professors too. Also its such a profession that experience is the biggest label of employment not ability.
    Similar case is for doctors. As it is they start earning very late. But an important point in their case is being updated in their knowledge and skill.

    Another important factor I think is psychological status for jobs like police and army. Regular assessment must be conducted to avoid shooting spree or suicides or beating up of people.

  10. October 8, 2008 10:52 pm

    @ Sharad : I am sure will agree on many things in the future and disagree as well. Its all a part of this and I am sure you enjoy it as much as I do! I am sure you will agree 🙂

  11. October 9, 2008 9:55 am

    Sharad, I did not know that there is a lower age limit for the president of India! So quickly we forget our lessons! I agree that as long as the person is an adult, there is no need for such a limit.
    And if you are commenting early, I think it’s to do with the time I have posted these last couple of days! 🙂 Usually I post in the mornings, but have been doing it in the evenings. And today being a holiday all over India, I doubt that I will get many comments today!

    Odzer, yes, I too have seen elderly men and women in the Chinese countryside working the fields. In India there is an impression that a person once he gets old needs to “rest.” I think each individual should decide his own limits. My grandmother had this habit of washing her own clothes and refused to allow anyone to wash them even when she was nearing 90! The day she died, she had done her regular washing, had gone for a walk too. She had no diseases, and died peacefully in her sleep. I think once you stop doing something, the body just gives up.

    Arvind, I think Vipul has to some extent answered your question. I agree with him. In India people have this mental block about working in old age. It’s as if their children and grandchildren are ill-treating them!

    Vishesh, my dad is around that age and he is extremely active, both physically and mentally. He still works for pay and is also a busy traffic management activist. As you said, it is very individual. Perhaps a person’s basic nature also counts. I know people in their forties who are lazy and are looking forward to retirement so they can do nothing but laze around! They think that is “life.” 🙂

    Vipul, what you said is absolutely right! In India people feel that if someone is working in old age it is not a good thing. Also I didn’t know about the upper limits of retirement age. That is indeed a good thing and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there is a shortage of young people there.

    Reema, I had no idea that 70 was the upper limit for teachers in private institutions. I think its great, but at the same time I agree with you whole-heartedly about boring old teachers! I have had quite a few of them myself. One of them for example was a drone, wouldn’t move physically from one spot and generally not interact with students. But on the other hand we had this great teacher who was in his sixties, who had dancing eyes, was very wiry and active, but alas we used to make fun of him because of his wierd mannerisms and accent! Now when I look back I think we were most unfair. On the other hand, students react very positively to young teachers. I do not know whether it is a bias because I have had one English young teacher who was more interested in her wardrobe that her work. Then there was this marketing “whizkid” around 35 who used to come and teach us in our MBA course and he was full of himself and more interested in telling us his own exploits than teaching! But students used to love him because they thought he had “connections.” So overall, it depends on the individual. We should let prejudices about age go.

  12. October 9, 2008 10:58 am

    I agree with reema and so no further comments!

    [actually, today i am lazy and don’t want to type!! :)]

  13. chirax permalink
    October 9, 2008 12:01 pm

    When people should retire should be evaluated case by case bases, as some people can’t work properly when they are 25 😉 and some people at 50 have so much energy that to are inspired to work.

    On a not related note, No holiday for me, I am in office 😦

  14. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    October 9, 2008 2:41 pm

    In Germany we have a social system so people have to retire at the age of 65 after which they are entitled to get pension from the Govt. If a person retires earlier say 55, he has to prove that he has some major health rpoblem in order to get his pension. This is tricky since if you are lucky and can prove, you can start getting pension earlier o.w. you need to wait until you are 65. It is definitely difficult to really live without any income – at least your standard will fall. Mostly manual labourers opt for an earlier retirement. It is tough for the white-collared to opt for early retirement. Due to the demographic problem of lesser youngsters to pay into the system, they plan to increase the age limit to 68 or even 70. But to really evaluate every individual and his condition would be too expensive and far too bureaucratic. It is a sort of a vicious circle with many youngsters looking for jobs and older ones being forced to work until 65 to be eligible for the state pension. The problem is less qualified or unskilled jobs where very few openings are available. Mostly these people are jobless and get some money to live from the social security system.

  15. wishtobeanon permalink
    October 9, 2008 5:17 pm

    Hi Nita, nice and interesting article. I have observed that many of the people who do physical labor like in farms etc. are people who are 50 plus, atleast in the state (of India) that I come from. Like you said, the desire to work depends on the individual. If there were more volunteer opportunities for senior citizens as well as unemployed youngsters, India would go a long way. Many of the public places here in the US enroll the help of volunteers, mainly senior citizens. I would be amazed to see 80 year olds helping other people.

  16. October 10, 2008 7:33 am

    Interesting census! I didn’t know that many people in UK work beyond their retirement age. The ability to work varies from person to person mostly depending on biological reasons. On a lighter note, older people working for a long time means less chances for the younger people to move up the ladder in time 🙂

  17. Guqin permalink
    October 10, 2008 7:56 am

    Mathematicians at 40. Artists at 60.

  18. Guqin permalink
    October 10, 2008 8:03 am

    Used to be 30 for mathematicians.

  19. October 10, 2008 2:50 pm

    Let us look at the age limits set which determine to an extent ability to work.

    We have a mandatory retirement age and varies from 58 – 60 years in most of the cases. 65 in some and 70 as mentioned in one of the responses. Once you have reached these limits, you are automatically super annuated and out you go.

    After conventional retirement, such persons may need to work for financial reasons or just to keep themselves busy.

    Clearly this is where they will have to face bias against age plus very importantly, they may have to compromise and take remuneration cuts to be able to continue.

    The other perspective is to determine whether the person is smart and has the requisite qualities required to do adequate justice to this job.

    A person who has all the traits that you have mentioned would be displaying them early on and perhaps lacking only in adequate exposure and experience.

    A person who is flexible by nature need not become rigid with the passage of time whereas it is extremely difficult for a person with a rigid attitude to become flexible as he/she ages.

    It is difficult to generalise on this. One gets to see all types at all ages.

    It is also a fact that a person who retires will most likely get a job / retainership with the same organisation or within a limited known circle. It would be extremenly difficult to go out and compete with other younger candidates in the open job market.

  20. October 10, 2008 4:55 pm

    blame the system. blame the mindset of people. blame the recruitment rate. blame the word retirement.
    but blaming does no good. if a person is 30 and has the mental strength fit enuf to overcome any crisis, then age doesn’t matter. but as he ages, his body gets weaker if he doesn’t take good care of it. so the same ability cannot be expected of him due to physical constraints.

  21. October 10, 2008 4:59 pm

    blame the system… blame the mindset of people… blame the recruitment rate… blame the word retirement…
    but blaming does no good. if a person is 30 and has the mental strength fit enuf to overcome any crisis, then age doesn’t matter. but as he ages, his body gets weaker if he doesn’t take good care of it. so the same ability cannot be expected of him due to physical constraints.
    So deciding efficiency based only on either mental/physical strength or age shouldn’t be done. all three factors and prolly more should be taken into account.

  22. October 10, 2008 7:09 pm

    I think it all depends individually. There are many factors such as personal or financial obligations that affects the decisions made on this matter. I believe professions like doctors, lawyers and teachers would only progress for betterment based on years of practice and growth in experience. But I strongly believe it has to be a personal choice rather than “stamped” mandatory. Some may prefer a younger professional these days, perhaps more to attract fresh and innovative ideas. Youngsters these days doesn’t need to put that extra effort as what our ancestors had to – this is one of the diminishing qualities that I would applaud the older generations, that had worked hard to build what is today.

  23. Padmini permalink
    October 11, 2008 3:06 am

    Interesting topic Nita. I guess it varies by person. I know that Type A personalities (like my husband) can never retire because they do not know how not to do anything:) As for me, I am ready to retire right now and will find things to do. I guess there should be some flexibility built into any guidelines or laws passed on the right age to retire.

  24. October 11, 2008 7:18 am

    Sakhi, Chirax, Gugin, Su, Kiran, thanks.

    Bombay wadapav eater, thanks for that info!

    wishtobeanon, I guess in India if a person is doing farm labour after the age of 50 it is quite possible that he doesn’t have grown sons or something!

    Manoj, well I guess in govt. organisations that holds true where a person is promoted on basis of senority. But in the pvt. sector people can move up the ladder as inefficient people can always be sidetracked. Promotions should ideally happen on the basis of capability. If an older person has not been performing I think he can be asked to retire prematurely too.

    Mavin, as you said some people may want to work in later years age is a bias he/she has to fight against. I will give you an example. A friend of ours is an owner of a business and he was looking to hire to set up a new office. All the people he wanted to hire had to be below 30 he told us (he was 40) as it is easier to control them! 🙂

    Padmini, I guess so, personality matters a lot. Many people do like to slow down after a particular age! I

  25. Guqin permalink
    October 13, 2008 12:14 pm

    Mathematicians at 40. Artists at 60. Philosophers at 70. Sages at death!

  26. October 14, 2008 1:45 pm

    Interesting post, Nita!

    I believe there is something deeper in the general dislike for the elderly people – the loss of the youth factor, of vitality. Now in the West everyone if desperately struggling to look and behave young, especially 50-65 year old ones. It is a bit different with with the 70+, but in general there is a youth-obsession everywhere to see. Even the shops selling cloths for 50+ will NEVER advertise with an aging woman, thy will still use the pretty young faces and figures…
    As Europe is aging in great numbers, they have to rethink the attitude to the elderly, and that is the reason why the “silver-agers” are supported so much in every way. in Austria they even want to increase the retirement age till 65.

    I personally love interacting with elderly people, they have something so very charming and special, like no one else.

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