The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?
Review of Economic Studies, forthcoming
Abstract: This paper investigates a possibly fundamental aspect of technological progress. If knowledge accumulates as technology advances, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate through lengthening educational phases and narrowing expertise, but these responses come at the cost of reducing individual innovative capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity - a greater reliance on teamwork - and negative implications for growth. Building on this "burden of knowledge" mechanism, this paper first presents six facts about innovator behavior. I show that age at first invention, specialization, and teamwork increase over time in a large micro-data set of inventors. Furthermore, in cross-section, specialization and teamwork appear greater in deeper areas of knowledge while, surprisingly, age at first invention shows little variation across fields. A model then demonstrates how these facts can emerge in tandem. The theory further develops explicit implications for economic growth, providing an explanation for why productivity growth rates did not accelerate through the 20th century despite an enormous expansion in collective research effort. Upward trends in academic collaboration and lengthening doctorates, which have been noted in other research, can also be explained in this framework. The knowledge burden mechanism suggests that the nature of innovation is changing, with negative implications for long-run economic growth.