The traditional view of forest dynamics originated by Kira and Shidei [Kira T, Shidei T (1967) Jap J Ecol 17:70-87] and Odum [Odum EP (1969) Science 164(3877):262-270] suggests a decline in net primary productivity (NPP) in aging forests due to stabilized gross primary productivity (GPP) and continuously increased autotrophic respiration (Ra). The validity of these trends in GPP and Ra is, however, very difficult to test because of the lack of long-term ecosystem-scale field observations of both GPP and Ra. Ryan and colleagues [Ryan MG, Binkley D, Fownes JH (1997) Ad Ecol Res 27:213-262] have proposed an alternative hypothesis drawn from site-specific results that aboveground respiration and belowground allocation decreased in aging forests. Here, we analyzed data from a recently assembled global database of carbon fluxes and show that the classical view of the mechanisms underlying the age-driven decline in forest NPP is incorrect and thus support Ryan's alternative hypothesis. Our results substantiate the age-driven decline in NPP, but in contrast to the traditional view, both GPP and Ra decline in aging boreal and temperate forests. We find that the decline in NPP in aging forests is primarily driven by GPP, which decreases more rapidly with increasing age than Ra does, but the ratio of NPP/GPP remains approximately constant within a biome. Our analytical models describing forest succession suggest that dynamic forest ecosystem models that follow the traditional paradigm need to be revisited.