Your drive and ambition dies at age 33!”, the headlines cried earlier this week. Cue looks of bemusement all round. Recent research had “discovered” that we are most driven at the age of 33 and thereafter, our ambition plummets. Given that I am teetering on the brink my mid-thirties, it’s truly a wonder I have managed to get this far in writing this piece… apparently, I am already years past my Best By date.
Reading the full press release (which should traditionally be used to collate and highlight the “best bits” to come out of the survey it’s promoting) makes it plain that the survey isn’t really about ambition and its evolution over the course of our lives. Instead, it’s just focused on how people fare with their resolutions for the new year. It’s misleading in the message to the reader.
Surveys and research are released every day and, like everything else in life, some are good, some are bad and some… well, some just leave you wondering why on earth people bother. But in the main, these studies are published along with data sets and detailed examples to show how the researchers arrived at a certain conclusion and to illustrate any trends spotted among those surveyed. As far as I’m concerned, dear reader, this was not one of them.
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There can be no denying that those studies are a godsend to journalists who’ve found themselves staring at the blank and empty expanse of a computer screen with a deadline looming and not an iota of inspiration as to a topic on which they plan to opine. But there needs to be a degree of responsibility and consideration to the research.
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In my last column, I touched on research from a well-known economist, professor David Blanchflower. A former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, Blanchflower has focused on the economics of happiness over the course of his career.
The research showed that unhappiness peaks at 47 years old; an age where people are faced with the burdens of caring for their children, ageing parents and probably having reached a level of seniority in one’s career that carries more responsibility – and therefore, stress – with it. Blanchflower explored this by gathering data from 132 countries, including 95 developing countries and 37 developed countries and later sharing those results in raw form for transparency.
By comparison, in reaching the conclusion that our ambition peaks at 33, this other survey spoke to two thousand people. None of the data was shared, nor did the authors clarify the questions put to the participants – which in itself raises even more questions. What was the age range of those two thousand people? What was the methodology used to arrive at the age of 33? And how were the terms “drive” and “ambition” defined to them? I am ambitious to succeed in my career, but I wouldn’t describe (as this study has done) my desire to travel more as an “ambition”.
These kinds of light-on-detail studies are ubiquitous nowadays, they are a weapon in the arsenal of a marketer in building brand awareness among consumers. We, as journalists, need to be better at determining the validity of these studies, questioning their accuracy and being more responsible in the reporting of them.
There is also a danger in these surveys in that their scant examination of various subjects can have a real, and often negative, impact on people’s lives. A young person reading that 33 is the age at which ambition wanes could interpret that as a need to put themselves under unnecessary undue pressure to succeed, thus taking a toll on their mental health.
Determination to progress does not fall off a cliff just because you’ve entered your mid-thirties. If anything, many people feel as though they’ve just got started.
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