Cognitive Performance and Staying Competitive in the Knowledge Economy

The vibrant 70-year-old Jon Younger, a passionate advocate for the freelance economy, was my recent guest on the Wisepreneurs podcast. Our conversation delved into the realm of freelancing, which independent professionals populate.

Freelance Demographics: A Survey by Jon Younger

Younger mentioned that 20% of freelancers he surveyed were 55 and older, with five to ten years of freelancing experience. They aren't young, novice professionals. Instead, they are mostly individuals with successful careers who are hesitant to quit their profession for various reasons.

Autonomy, Flexibility, Experience: The Freelance Advantage

For many experienced workers, freelancing can provide a new lease on their careers, offering flexibility, autonomy, and the opportunity to leverage their years of experience effectively. It's a way to continue working and redefining their professional lives. But to tap into this opportunity, one needs to keep their cognitive abilities sharp.

Intellectual Capital Growth: A Priority for Freelancers

Taking every measure to maintain our cognitive ability enables us to secure stimulating, high-paying jobs and facilitate the growth of our intellectual capital.

The Age Dilemma: Countering Perceived Drawbacks with Experience

While the perceived drawbacks of age might dissuade many, it's worth remembering that being an older freelancer has a unique advantage—their depth of experience, which is a valuable asset in the knowledge economy.

Economic Cycles and Complex Projects: The Wealth of Experience

These professionals have weathered countless economic cycles, managed complex projects, and honed their problem-solving skills over decades. They possess a rich network of contacts, a nuanced understanding of their industry, and a reputation built on years of reliable work. This combination of factors makes them a compelling option for many businesses seeking freelance professionals.

Mental Acuity and Work Performance: The Crucial Link

Cognitive performance, the brain's ability to execute tasks involving thinking and understanding, encompasses mental activities like memory, attention, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, and language comprehension. These skills are crucial to staying competitive in the knowledge economy.

Ageing and Cognitive Abilities: The Impact on Work Performance

But as we age, our cognitive abilities change, impacting our work performance if not properly managed. Understanding these changes, and learning how to optimise our cognitive performance, is key for older freelancers. Maintaining our cognitive abilities requires a multi-pronged approach that involves engaging our mental faculties, maintaining physical health, and embracing continual learning.

Crystallised and Fluid Intelligence: The Keys to Adapting and Learning

That requires us to focus on two types of intelligence: crystallised and fluid. Crystallised intelligence is our ability to utilise knowledge, skills, and experience, which we develop over our lifetime. It's relatively stable and often enhances with age.

In contrast, fluid intelligence—our ability to reason and solve new problems, devoid of previous knowledge—peaks in our 20s and declines gradually. Older professionals must actively engage in learning, challenge themselves with new tasks, and continually exercise their problem-solving skills to counteract this. We can preserve and enhance our fluid intelligence. This ability to adapt and learn will enable older freelancers to thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

Peter Attia’s Outlive: A Roadmap to Longevity and Cognitive Health

According to Peter Attia in his recent book Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, your most powerful tool for preventing cognitive decline is exercise.

His breakdown for keeping your brain healthy includes:

  • Aerobic efficiency—slow and steady, either walking or jogging, which helps cerebral blood flow,
  • Maximum aerobic output (VO2 max) — more intense, which makes you functionally younger
  • Strength to combat sarcopenia and improve your mitochondria, and combat inflammation
  • Stability—to avoid falls
  • Diet or nutrition, or as he calls it, nutritional biochemistry
  • Sleep, and
  • Manage and improve emotional health

A Long-Term Approach: Building Cognitive Health Over Years

All are factors that will improve your cognitive ability as you age, making work more manageable and you more productive and healthy at the same time.

Your active engagement in learning and problem-solving helps maintain and improve cognitive capabilities.

This consistent mental stimulation contributes to neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, essential for maintaining fluid intelligence.

Taking Early Steps for Freelancing Success in Later Years

Reflect on these ideas and see how they apply to you. These are considerations to build up over several years, especially if you are now in your fifties or older.

Suppose you're in the latter stages of your career; I suggest taking steps towards these goals; the earlier you start, the better. Freelancing in your later years can provide you with a new lease on life, but it does require a proactive approach to maintaining cognitive health and continual learning.

The Freelance Economy: Valuing Wisdom, Experience, and Problem-Solving

The freelance economy doesn't just value youth and speed but also wisdom, experience, and the ability to solve complex problems—traits many older professionals possess in abundance.

Dr Peter Attia, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, 2023
Jon Younger, A tireless advocate for the freelance economy