Debunking myths that limit us

3 ways to counter ageism at work.

In Practice

December 02, 2021
Dr. James smiles into the camera.
By Jacquelyn James, PhD December 02, 2021
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Living to old age is becoming a normative expectation worldwide — The growing number of years of life in the conventional retirement years, sometimes 30, even 40, has meant that many older adults want to and more importantly, need to, continue working.

The labor force participation rates of today’s older adults are one of the most visible changes in the experience of aging in America. Individuals in their 70s and 80s are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce and many of them are working full time.

Still, there are more older adults who want to and need to work later in life than find ways to do so. This is especially the case for women who may have interrupted work for caregiving roles and who were low income to begin with. In a recent survey, 75% of workers report that they expect to work during the conventional retirement years, although just 30% of retirees report doing so. 


75%

 of workers report that they expect to work during the conventional retirement years


While there are many reasons for this discrepancy, surely one barrier is the widespread irrational belief that after a given age, employees are no longer up to the job. 

Indeed, negative stereotypes of older workers abound. Reports of age discrimination abound. These preconceived notions that older adults are less capable follow them into the workplace, at all levels of employment — from recruitment, hiring, and promotion opportunities to layoff and firing decisions. Such biases can be explicit or implicit, real or imagined, so getting past them requires strategies for making sure that these harmful ideas do not enter into employers’ decision-making. To wit, ageism is not even considered a taboo! 

Moreover, the idea of generational conflict has seeped into public consciousness and has a power of its own. To avoid having these labels take hold and create an exclusive and negative climate, employers might strive to create structures to make these outcomes less likely.

Three myths about older workers and how to counter them:

Myth #1: The workplace is rife with intergenerational conflict.

Much has been made in the popular press about generational differences and the ensuing conflicts. There is, however, little empirical research to support these assertions. First, generations are hard to define; it is hard to tell, for example, whether a difference is based on age or just a different stage of life (e.g., young adulthood vs. pre-retirement). Second, there is great variation within a “generation” in attitudes, values, and beliefs (i.e. some Baby Boomers fought in Viet Nam; some protested the war). A worthy candidate of any age can be eliminated on the basis of a negative stereotype. Most importantly, 70% of workers in a recent AARP survey say that they like working with members of other generations. A clear majority agree that both older and younger workers bring assets to the organization. That said, disagreements, even conflict within groups in any organization are to be expected from time to time. It’s too facile to think of these as due to age (or generational) differences. 


70%

of workers say that they like working with members of other generations.


Minimize intergenerational bias by:

  • Expanding policies designed for a younger workforce, such as flexible work options, for their relevance to older workers by creating phased retirement programs and part-time options. 
  • Providing leadership training for workers of all ages. Pair employees of different age groups in mentoring relationships—mentoring often goes both ways! 
  • Building age-diverse teams; when employees get to know each other, stereotypes can melt away.

Myth #2: Productivity declines with age due to cognitive decline.

The belief that job performance suffers as we age is widely held. This view is typically based on the idea that we all start to lose it at a certain age. While it is true that certain cognitive tests show declines as we age, starting in our 20s (!), the impact of such declines is questionable. This may be because older adults have ways of compensating for them with such things as planning, self-monitoring, and maximizing strengths. Moreover, these declines occur slowly and over many years. They may even go unnoticed by those around us. In fact, most of the cognitive tests showing declines have little to do with real-world outcomes such as performance on the job.

Cognitive tests

Indeed, study after study reveals little to no relationship between age and job performance. Some studies even find a positive relationship.

It seems that experience is a better predictor of job performance than age. 

Minimize ageist bias by: 

  • Making sure performance evaluations are based on objective criteria, are job-related and are used consistently and fairly across the organization. 
  • Training supervisors to examine their own potential for bias. 
  • Asking employees of all ages how they think about their job—whether it features personally meaningful attributes, whether they are still appropriately challenged by the work, and what might the organization might offer (e.g., flexible work options?) so that their employees could optimize their strengths and maintain positive work identities going forward.

Myth #3: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

While employers often see older workers as uninterested in training and development, they also cling to the adage that older adults can’t learn. So, which is it? Is it that older adults are not interested in learning or that learning opportunities are not provided for them?

Some earlier studies do show that older adults are less interested in training and development opportunities than are younger workers. There is also evidence that older workers are denied training opportunities


3x

One case study found an organization spends nearly three times more money training younger workers than older ones.


However, a deeper dive into such findings revealed several things. 1) Older workers do not participate in training that they perceive to be unrelated to their responsibilities on the job. 2) Training is rarely tailored to the learning abilities or interests of older adults. 3) There are very real positive outcomes when training opportunities are provided for older workers such as—increasing job satisfaction and employee engagement

To provide meaningful training for older adults:

  • Make sure that training and development opportunities are relevant to job responsibilities; link training to past experience
  • Tailor the learning experience to workers at all ages and stages of life and career.
  • Adopt mixed methods of training such as “[R]everse mentoring, networking, e-learning, and intergenerational cross-training…” 
  • Allow for active practice with the training content so participants get the opportunity to try out what they are learning, which leads to more successful outcomes. 

Break the script!

As the economic uncertainty continues, employers are in no position to ignore a valuable workforce eager to contribute. Older workers are valued for their loyalty, their generativity, their higher levels of engagement, and their ability to be “calm in the storm.” When older workers are interested, motivated, and skilled for the job, they should not be overlooked!

Dr. James smiles into the camera.
Jacquelyn James, PhD, Research Professor

Jacquelyn B. James is director of the Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work and research professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Her research has focused on the meaning and experience of work, gender roles and stereotypes, adult development, perceptions of older workers and emerging retirement issues.

Jacquelyn B. James is director of the Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work and research professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Her research has focused on the meaning and experience of work, gender roles and stereotypes, adult development, perceptions of older workers and emerging retirement issues.


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