Century-old forests in the US upper Midwest and Northeast power much of North America’s terrestrial carbon (C) sink, but these forests’ production and C sequestration capacity are expected to soon decline as fast-growing early successional species die and are replaced by slower-growing late successional species. But will this really happen? Here we marshal empirical data and ecological theory to argue that substantial declines in net ecosystem production (NEP) owing to reduced forest growth, or net primary production (NPP), are not imminent in regrown temperate deciduous forests over the next several decades. Forest age and production data for temperate deciduous forests, synthesized from published literature, suggest slight declines in NEP and increasing or stable NPP during middle successional stages. We revisit long-held hypotheses by EP Odum and others that suggest low-severity, high-frequency disturbances occurring in the region’s aging forests will, against intuition, maintain NEP at higher-than-expected rates by increasing ecosystem complexity, sustaining or enhancing NPP to a level that largely offsets rising C losses as heterotrophic respiration increases. This theoretical model is also supported by biological evidence and observations from the Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment in Michigan, USA. Ecosystems that experience high-severity disturbances that simplify ecosystem complexity can exhibit substantial declines in production during middle stages of succession. However, observations from these ecosystems have exerted a disproportionate influence on assumptions regarding the trajectory and magnitude of age-related declines in forest production. We conclude that there is a wide ecological space for forests to maintain NPP and, in doing so, lessen declines in NEP, with significant implications for the future of the North American carbon sink. Our intellectual frameworks for understanding forest C cycle dynamics and resilience need to catch up to our more complex and nuanced understanding of ecological succession.