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Creativity and ageing well: implications for design anthropology

In AgeWell, an Erasmus+ funded international project, we explore how design anthropology deals with the complex relationship between creativity, ageing and wellbeing, as well as creativity for ageing and wellbeing. This entails examining how ageing can be an opportunity for creative performance at the workplace.


Mário Passos Ascenção

principal lecturer
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Mikko Toiviainen

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Aarni Tuomi

lehtori, majoitus- ja ravitsemisliiketoiminta
lecturer, hospitality business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu


Visiting Research Fellow
University of Surrey

Published : 08.11.2023

Older workers are creative, too. Cohen’s seminal work, ‘The Creative Age’ (2000), posits creativity as a pivotal aspect of the aging process. In line with this, it is imperative to shift perceptions of aging from a narrative of decline to one of untapped creative potential in life’s latter half.

As Western nations grapple with an aging population and extended lifespans, a considerable number of older adults find themselves either needing or desiring to remain in the workforce. Consequently, businesses must recalibrate their understanding of the creative contributions emanating from this demographic.

A look at ageing through the lens of creativity

Creativity, an enigmatic and multi-faceted concept, resists straightforward classification. As a universal trait that exists across a developmental spectrum, it debunks the myth that ‘creative types’ are a select few (Kelley & Kelley 2013).

Amabile (1997) defines creativity as “the production of novel, appropriate ideas in any realm of human activity, from science to the arts, education, business, and to everyday life. The ideas must be novel – different from what has been done before – but they cannot be simply bizarre; they must be appropriate to the problem or opportunity presented.”

Conversely, Drazin, Glynn and Kazanjian (1999) define creativity as “the process of engagement in creative acts, regardless of whether the resultant outcomes are novel, useful or creative.” Despite lack of universal agreement on the conceptualisation of creativity, it could be seen as a mental ability, a process and a human behaviour (Andriopoulos 2000).

The narrative surrounding ageing often gravitates towards decline, focusing on the loss of physical capabilities, cognitive function, and social engagement. However, the lens of creativity offers an alternative perspective that reframes ageing as a period of continued growth, adaptation, and expression.

Using design anthropology to examine ageing

In the AgeWell project, we explore how design anthropology deals with the complex relationship between creativity, ageing and wellbeing.

Design anthropology stands for a transdisciplinary and multilateral confluence of the fields of design and anthropology. Both the process and outcome of design aim specifically at intervention in existing realities (Otto & Smith 2013), and thus creativity in the form of performing future ways of being is in its core. As design is fundamentally about designing futures for actual people (Simonsen & Robertson 2013), participatory design – a strong tributary to design anthropological practice – prioritizes the rights and actions of these people to participate in shaping the worlds in which they act.

What anthropology brings to the mix is its long tradition in socio-cultural contextualization and interpretation, including a unique sensitivity to the value orientations of groups affected by design projects. Among many other foundational questions, design anthropology asks: Whose and what kind of creativity are we prioritizing in our design ventures, and on what basis? What is the lived experience of older workers in the workplace, and what can we learn from it?

Taking the relationship between creativity, ageing and occupational wellbeing under the design anthropological lens, design anthropologists examine how ageing can be an opportunity for creative performance at the workplace.

Ageing: an opportunity for creativity

The axiom that older workers are creative is contrary to the prevailing notion that cognitive abilities universally decline with age. Indeed, research suggests a more nuanced picture.

Fluid intelligence – problem-solving, quick thinking, flexibility of thought, and the ability to reason abstractly – tends to decline with age. Crystallized intelligence, or accumulated knowledge and wisdom, often remains stable or even increases with age. (Johnson & Finn 2017.)

Interestingly, crystallized intelligence, which is abundant in older people, is more closely related to creativity than fluid intelligence. The more socio-cultural and worldly knowledge one has, the better one is able to generate ideas. Furthermore, long-term training (e.g. via lifelong learning) in creative problem-solving increases fluid intelligence, as finding ways to solve problems enhances mental flexibility and reasoning ability.

Crystallized intelligence enables creativity, whereas creativity enables fluid intelligence. The value of crystallized intelligence in creative pursuits cannot be overstated. It enriches the depth and texture of creative work and allows for the synthesis of complex ideas and themes.

Older individuals often engage in “experimental creativity” (Galenson 2019), taking a longer, more iterative approach to their work, refining and expanding upon earlier ideas.

Master-level course: Design anthropology for creativity and healthy ageing

The AgeWell project manifests in the development of four master-level courses, all centered around the theme of wellness and healthy ageing. One of these courses is specifically dedicated to the practice of design anthropology.

In the Design Anthropology course, students will be cognizant that the relationship between creativity and healthy ageing is bidirectional. Embodied creative engagement has been shown to have positive effects on cognitive function, emotional well-being, and even physical health (Cohen 2006).

Design Anthropology, with its human-centred approach, fosters creativity throughout its process. It enables older ‘actors’ (e.g. workers) to engage creatively in the design of meaningful ageing well interventions. Older actors, rich in crystallized intelligence, are well equipped to critically examine the social, cultural and ethical implications of design practices and outcomes, which are a pre-requisite in design anthropology practice.

The intertwined relationship between creativity and ageing offers a transformative lens for future students of design anthropology. Rather than approaching ageing through a narrative of decline, we should champion a more nuanced view, emphasizing the potent combination of crystallized intelligence and creative embodied engagement as vital components for healthy ageing.

Creativity is not merely an attribute possessed by the young and the ‘creative types’ but a universal human quality that can be nurtured and deployed at various levels of intervention design.


Amabile, T. M. 1997. Motivating creativity in organizations: On doing what you love and loving what you do. California Management Review, 40(1), 39-58.

Andriopoulos, C. A. 2000. Mind stretching: A grounded theory for enhancing organizational creativity. Unpublished PhD. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde.

Cohen, G. D. 2000. The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. New York: Avon Books.

Cohen, G. D. 2006. Research on creativity and aging: The positive impact of the arts on health and illness. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, 30(1), 7-15.

Drazin, R., Glynn, M. A. & Kazanjian, R. K. 1999. Multilevel theorizing about creativity in organizations: A sense making perspective. Academy of Management Review, 286-307.

Galenson, D. W. 2019. The Nature of Creativity in Old Age. Working Paper No. 2019-67. Chicago: Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at UChicago.

Johnson, J. & Finn, K. 2017. Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population: Towards Universal Design. Cambridge: Morgan Kaufmann.

Kelley, T. & Kelley, D. 2013. Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. New York: Crown Business.

Otto, T. & Smith, R. C. 2013. Design anthropology: A distinct style of knowing. In: W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. C. Smith (Eds.), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (pp. 1-29). London: Bloomsbury.

Simonsen, J., & Robertson, T. (Eds.). 2013. Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. Abingdon: Routledge.

Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Shutterstock