The Creativity Crisis, or Where Have All the Grown Ups Gone?

Newsweek magazine has a great piece out right now on The Creativity Crisis.  It makes many excellent observations that go beyond the scope of this post, but one particular concept keeps hovering in my mind, and I wonder if anyone else ever thinks about this kind of thing: Is it possible we aren’t really growing up at the same rate we used to?  Could it be that even as technical adults we are parenting with an adolescent mentality that is smothering our kids’ capacity to develop their creativity?  Children model what we do, not what we say.

Getting older doesn't always mean getting wiser.

“The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).”

The article talks about how children today are scoring lower on creativity tests, and ponders if too much TV time is to blame.  Surely our lock-step consumer culture that feeds conformity and insecurity to children must play a role, but I think who’s spoon feeding that culture might, uncomfortably, be a bit closer to home.  A lot closer.

“Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. ‘It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,’ Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is ‘most serious.'”

I am very frustrated by my own experience with a negative environment around divergent thinking in some of my adult peer groups.  These are not necessarily my friends, but sometimes they are.  And oddly I think I could also track the beginning of the end of comfortable disagreements between social friends and colleagues back to about 1990, the year the creativity tests started showing significant declines in our children’s abilities to think like innovators, inventers, and problem-solvers.

We used to be able to hash things out, have a drink and move on.  But there is an edge to many conversations now that feels a lot less open and trusting and confident.  I’ve come to identify what I call simply “The Look.”  It’s what I get every now and then when I express too many thoughts or ideas on a subject I thought was open for discussion, and apparently is not.  It could be mountaintop removal, or marriage, or art, or even whether or not this french toast is as good as it used to be.  The Look says you’ve crossed a line.  I am now suspicious of you.  You are saying things that open cans of worms and you really should stop now.  But it’s too late.

Things are never really the same after The Look.

I have an unprovable theory that since as a species we are living longer, we effectively have extended our developmental adolescence.  Growing up takes longer.  Taking on responsibility is delayed.  And in this murky man-child world, we are more insecure than generations before us about openly exploring divergent thinking well into our adult years.  As a group, we are more susceptible to bringing an adolescent mindset to disagreements, and therefore more easily pressured into squashing down the divergent thinking process as soon as it hits a peer pressure wall.  If this is true, it’s wreaking havoc on multiple up and coming generations in ways new and unpleasant, with consequences we have yet to discover fully.

Clearly, there are other dynamics at play.  International anxieties, the economy, the rise of the political far right, and the counter energies of the far left — all come together, then apart, then reconnect over and over again as they have around the world for centuries.  Except this time it’s us.  The good ole U.S. of A.  And it’s a really bad time to be inadvertently raising a generation of conformists who are afraid of the shadows of their own thoughts. 

Let’s have that drink and move on.  I’m buying.

7 thoughts on “The Creativity Crisis, or Where Have All the Grown Ups Gone?

  1. If there’s never one right answer, how can we test creativity? That in itself sounds like it’s lacking creativity as well.
    I have observed a lack of responsibility in children, but the adults have to let them take it on. The children naturally want to, but you can’t wait to show them how to care for themselves until they’re 17.
    Open up all the cans! Free the worms!

    • Think about the scene in Apollo 13 where they put on the table only the things the astronauts have available to them and say, “OK, we have to solve this problem using only these things.” There was no prescribed “right answer” but they need to generate a lot of unique ideas and then combine them into a solution that solved the problem. That can be measured or at least evaulated for a score that shows either an ability to go through that process successfully or not. Make sense? “Free the Worms” needs to become some kind of crest or logo… it!

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    • Thank you, Lisa….I’m a bit conflicted, in that I’m glad you think it was a good description and sorry to hear you’ve experienced it enough to know it. 🙂

  3. There is no one right answer, but when you hit on one great answer, you can feel it all the way through to your bones. Creativity is so subjective that you have to have inordinate guts to put your work out there for the critics to gnaw on and as Faulkner said, “Everybody knows the alphabet.”

    I don’t know the answer, but I suspect our demand for conformity and how that plays out in standardized tests and the rest of our mania for accountabilty has sucked the creative energy out of the classroom. Our growing embrace of fundamentalism in religion and the original intent of our founders also speaks to minds that insist there is only one right answer, minds that dismiss the poetry and vagaries of our existence. It’s a pity.

    I knew an art teacher, and a genuinely committed educator, who once told me that if all but one of her students were drawing at one particular level and that one was drawing wildly divergent stuff, she would work to bring that divergent student back into the fold. I asked her how many Picassos she expected to have in her career. To her credit, she was horrified at the implication. And in her defense, she was quite young.

    I don’t know about the extended adolesence. I certainly extended mine. My wife might contend I’m still in an arrested state. But in the past few years I’ve picked up new instruments that I insist on playing badly, I’m learning a new language, I’ve begun a casual study of Buddhism and meditation and I’m close to finishing a new novel after working on it for 6 or 7 years. If this is adolesence, I don’t ever want to grow up. And at 60, I am as creative as I’ve ever been. I just don’t have the stamina.

    I hope kids can get back on track and learn how to play. I think that’s where creativity begins. But with childhood being so scheduled and structured, I don’t think kids have time to pick up a stick and imagine it as a bridge spanning a bottomless chasm or a longboat chock full of bloodthirsty vikings. That’s a pity, too.

    • Wow, David, thank you for this reflection. I share many of your perceptions about what seems to be happening. I am glad too that you came to the defense of extended adolescence, as I only commented on one aspect of that. I think you are wise to observe that the “dreamer” go-for-it side of of youth is quite desirable, throughout life.

      It’s not all bad. But as all of us who went through it will recall, there is dark side. That dark side is the energy that tries to control group behavior and that is quite insecure. As you picked up, that is the extension I’ve observed so openly displayed in some unexpected adult places.

      There is a cultural acceptance of adults linking their activities and goals to children. I don’t think this is helping anything……kids are kids, and they need adults to be adults. This is not new of course, it’s always happened, but as a cultural norm it seems to be taking root.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I hope it spurs more comment.

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