Looking forward, or back, to those times when we’re ‘peak human’

We’ve previously discussed the topic of peak humanity, the idea that we will soon see the end of human population growth. Today we will talk about ‘peak human’ instead and consider when in our lifecycle we reach certain peaks.

But first, before we get to the abilities and when they reach their peaks, let’s understand how the Australian population will change in the next 10 years.

Ages zero to 4 see a negligible increase in population; ages five to 14  decline a little bit; ages 15 to 25 increase significantly; ages 26 to 33 decline significantly; ages 34 to 50 grow massively; ages 51 to 65 see strong growth; every year 66-and-over sees huge growth. Study the expected growth profile in the two charts below.

Now let’s see if we can predict how Australia will be changing, based on the rising and declining age brackets and the skill peaks associated with them. Often the data behind each data point is a bit vague since different studies come up with slightly different numbers. Enough of the disclaimers!

Birth obviously peaks at age 0. In a decade we will have roughly the same number of babies in Australia as today.

The ability to learn a foreign language (different to growing up multilingually) peaks at some stage before puberty. The age of seven is mentioned relatively often. No wonder more and more early education institutions are introducing languages into their curricula.

Make way for angst

Teenage angst peaks around 16. A terribly hard to measure data point but, intuitively, it makes sense. Considering we are going to see significant population growth in the teenage cohort over the coming decade, the number of young people needing help with depression and wanting to attend counselling will only go up.

That’s just based on demographics and isn’t even considering the increased exposure to social media, which is proven to decrease mental wellbeing in young people.

A standard way of testing mental processing power is called ‘symbol coding’. Participants are first shown numbers associated with certain symbols and then asked to convert a string of numbers into a string of relevant symbols.

Turns out 18-year-olds perform best at these tests. Remember that this is not a measure of intelligence but processing power. Your teenage kids will outperform you in games that require mental workload rather than mental complexity.

Pick the games that you play with your teenagers wisely to still be able to kick their butts!

At age 22 our ability to remember names peaks. Very handy, considering that’s when young people are at uni, start their careers, travel the world, and are exposed to heaps of new people at once.

A year later, at 23, general life satisfaction sees the first of two peaks. The anxieties related with education are behind us and work hasn’t had a chance to wear us down just yet. We might even earn a bit of money, still have time on our hands (mortgages aren’t a worry yet). Generally we have very few responsibilities. Life is swell. For many, nostalgia carries them back to that very stage of the lifecycle.

Peak strength at 25

At 25, also roughly the age we tend to be successful at the dating game (ie meet our life partners), we reach peak muscle strength. It’s not all downhill from here though. By hitting the gym, muscles can be strengthened at any stage of the lifecycle. With the help of training, peak strength plateaus for over a decade after reaching the magical age of 25.

Physical endurance peaks later in life. Marathon performance is at its highest at age 28. Ironman competitors peak around 33. Keep in mind that these are the averages of the overall pool of competitors. Individual record holders might well be younger or older.

Turns out that your bones are never stronger than at age 30. Your bone mass actually increases up until then. It’s all downhill from here though. Your bones slowly loose strength and density. You can, however, stuff your face with calcium and vitamin D to slow the decline.

Your ability to play chess peaks just as your bones weaken. Okay, I have no idea when your chess game peaks, but after the performance of almost 100 chess grandmasters was analysed it became clear that at 31 you are literally at the top of your game. Only a year after, at 32, you reach your peak ability to remember faces, according to a series of lab tests.

Time for a prize

Interviews of orchestra members around the world suggest that musical ability peaks around 37. Playing music, of course, is a combination of mental and physical skills. Three years after your musical talent peaks you finally make the scientific discovery that earns you a Nobel Prize.

Granted, some of us won’t win that Nobel Prize, but the winners tend to make their biggest contributions to their fields around the age of 40. I, for one, am 39 and looking to 2023, when I will finally make a world-altering scientific discovery.

At age 43 you will reach peak concentration. The good folks at Harvard University and the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory found that the ability to sustain attention improves with age until it peaks at 43. Here is a fun quote from their research:

“While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their mid-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused.”

Not only am I due to win my Nobel Prize, I will also finally be able to better focus. The next few years are going to be great for me!

At 48, our ability to understand the emotions of others reaches a peak – just in time to deal with our teenage kids. Very handy!

As we enter a new decade, at age 50, we are most likely to have a midlife crisis (as measured by the number of greying Porsche drivers). Our overall knowledge and ability to make sense of new information peaks at the same time.

We are still mentally agile enough to think quick, we can integrate new insights into our existing intellectual frameworks. A great age to be in a leadership role – fortunately the average Australian CEO is 54 and the political top jobs are handed to 52-year-olds. If in doubt, vote for a leader in their 50s rather than their 80s.

Retired and contented

Just after retirement, at 69, we reach our second peak of life satisfaction. The stressors of work are behind us, we haven’t used up our retirement savings yet, and are still in good health. A marvellous time of the lifecycle!

Lab tests show that up to the age of 71 we actively increase our vocabulary. Crosswords have never been easier. Considering that the fastest-growing age group in relative terms throughout the 2020s is Baby Boomers entering their 70s, we are now in the golden decade for crossword puzzles!

Gallup found that women are most likely to “always feel good about their physical appearance” at 74. Men’s feelings about their own bodies peak a little later, at 80. Our psychological wellbeing peaks yet later, at about 82. No other age saw as many participants of a study self-identify as happy as 82-year-olds.

It’s kind of nice that the psychological wellbeing peak occurs just before our final peak in life. Death peaks at 85 years of age.

Whatever age you are, I hope you still have a few new peaks to look forward to.


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