So, is Creativity declining? The short answer is yes. It has been in America since 1990.

From 1990 to 2008 there has been a steady decline in creativity in the US, according to research conducted by Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary. While I couldn’t find any similar South African data, a Newsweek article from 2010 suggests that it may be an America only phenomena:

Around the world, though, other countries are making creativity development a national priority

I’m not sure I buy that view? As Kim points out in a paper in the Creativity Research Journal in 2011,

Countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have modeled their educational systems after the American education system because of America’s previous success in encouraging creativity in children

It seems to me that one could quite easily conclude that creativity growth prospects, around the world, aren’t looking very healthy at all. And for those of you who prefer pictures…

creativity decline newsweek ibm Kyung Hee Kim torrence test scores children innovation play

creativity decline newsweek ibm Kyung Hee Kim torrence test scores children innovation play

It’s wasn’t the pictures that scared me as much as the conclusions that Kim draws from her research (included analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults)…

Thus, it can be concluded younger children’s ability to produce statistically infrequent, unique, and unusual ideas has significantly decreased after 1990. 


The significant decrease of Strengths scores since 1990 indicates that over the last 20 years, children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle. It could be speculated children are learning to interact in more impersonal ways, as they are more dependent on current technologies to communicate, perhaps because these technologies lack person to person, verbal and other interpersonal communicative signals. Technologies can enhance creativity and are useful tools for the creative process; however, some aspects of technologies may hinder the development of a child’s creative personality. The decrease in Elaboration scores which persists since 1984 indicates that over the last 30 years, 1) people of all ages, kindergartners through adults, have been steadily losing their ability to elaborate upon ideas and detailed and reflective thinking; 2) people are less motivated to be creative; and 3) creativity is less encouraged by home, school, and society overall.


The results indicate younger children are becoming less capable of the critical thinking processes of synthesis and organization and less capable of capturing the essence of problems.


The results indicate younger children are tending to grow up more narrow-minded, less intellectually curious, and less open to new experiences.

I don’t know about you, but it’s at this point I’m hoping like hell that this is just an American problem. My gut, sadly, tells me otherwise. While I don’t have any data, my own anecdotal observations quite easily match some of these conclusions in the world I inhabit. I’d be more than happy to be proved incorrect.

Does It Matter?

Of course it matters. At a macroeconomic level it counts.The health of an economy relies heavily on the creativity and innovation of scientists, engineers, business people, farmers, miners, and any person who contributes towards it, to employ more people, build more things that other countries want to buy, produce more food from the same piece of land, improve our national health, secure our borders, etc, etc. And we have to do it better than before. We can’t just do what we did last year, and the year before. We’ve got to find new and improved ways to do everything, all the time. Cheaper, better, faster and more of it.

On a microeconomic level you can take that thinking and run it through almost every single part of an economy. Provinces want all that, cities want it too, and so do businesses, and sports teams, and farmers and miners, and families and you. Even Mother Nature is hoping we’ll find better ways to treat our planet and everything that lives on it.

At a personal level it matters. Creativity breathes life into an otherwise mundane and boring existence. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered a life in which you had no access to creativity inside of yourself? A life without the skill set of creativity leaves you doing what when you get home from a day in the office where you followed instructions all day? It leaves you doing what on the weekend when you wake up on Saturday morning yearning to do something different? Well actually there’ll be no yearning. Creativity is that yearning to do something different, something unusual, something adventurous.

Here Come The Machines

I’ve always held onto the view that the one thing machines / robots will never do better than humans is ‘creativity’. When it comes to repetitive functional tasks they’re already replacing us and showing they do those jobs far better. But creativity, I don’t think so. That’s our domain. It’s what makes us human. The ability to not only desire to find another way, but to also take disconnected bits and pieces, and thoughts and ideas and put them together in a way that changes the world. I often say to my peer group of parents, don’t let your children study anything a machine might be able to replace, because a machine will replace it. Encourage your children to pick something, anything, that has an element of creativity at it’s centre and they’ll never have to complete with a machine or a robot. Not ever.

But if we’re going to let our creativity levels slide into the toilet, it’s not going to be a case of machines catching up to our creativity level, we’re just gonna hand it over to them on a plate, as we slide on by, towards a world of grey (no shades, just grey).

The Magic That Is Creativity

We’ve become so fixated on getting smarter in our heads, that we’ve missed the magic that is creativity. Do any Google search on ‘Einstein quotes’ (I’ll make it easy for you) and you’ll see him speaking of imagination and creativity over and over again. Academic genius without creativity and imagination is nothing. It’s a machine. It’s a robot. Robots have that kind of smarts. They know lots of things in one dimension. They can apply those things in that one dimension faster than any human. Creativity and imagination unlock the potential of knowledge, because if you can’t apply knowledge it’s not worth having.

It was at 16, while Einstein was imagining what it would be like to ride next to a beam of light that the first thoughts of what was to become the Theory of Relativity was born. He was imagining long before he had the brainpower to solve the question he was asking.

I can’t say if this slide in creativity is happening here in South Africa or not? I can say, that if it is we need to do more than just pay attention. We need to stop the slide, turn it around and send it on it’s way into space where our children, all of them, have imagination power to think about things like riding next to light beams, and then we can be assured that all this academic information we’re feeding them will be put to great use, and maybe even change the world.