Ageing and employability: Old dogs can learn new tricks

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower recently reported that almost half (47 percent) of the country’s workforce aged 40 and above who lost their jobs were not able to find one within six months. Those below 40, however, were able to re-enter into the workforce at a faster rate.

There is a common concern among employers that it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks—that older employees are less willing than younger ones to be trained or adapt to a new job.

So should age be a deterrent to hiring?

Aging is often associated with a decline in cognitive abilities – the brain’s ability to learn and remember skills and to problem solve. With multitasking now a common feature of many jobs, there is a view that older workers may be less competent in handling the demands of the workplace.

The expectation is that older employees are less motivated, unwilling to involve themselves in learning new skills and are therefore less likely to be innovative. The fear is that when older workers are less willing to adapt to change, this may hold companies back in meeting new challenges.

Lifelong learning

In many societies, including Singapore, lifelong learning is encouraged. Training, either formally through a structured program or informally from challenges experienced in the course of the job, is encouraged because it helps employees do their job better.

A critical factor that determines an individual’s attitude towards training and development is what they think of themselves in terms of fixedness or malleability

Like many developed countries, Singapore faces an ageing population. To maintain sustained growth the challenge is to ensure that the population remains productively employed, their skills remain relevant, and that judgements against older workers are challenged.

For employers and policy-makers this raises some interesting questions: Would older employees be willing to participate in training and development if they were asked to do so by their company? And if they aren’t, what could the reasons be for this reluctance?

My research in this area has found several characteristics that influence attitudes towards training and development.

The proclivity of older employees towards learning may have already been fostered at a younger age but only becomes more obvious as they grow older.

A critical factor that determines an individual’s attitude towards training and development is what they think of themselves in terms of fixedness or malleability.

Fixed skills

Some hold the view that personal characteristics such as intelligence and skills are fixed (cannot be changed), while others believe in the incremental view that their capacities and characteristics are malleable (can be shaped or improved).

ThinkAloud4Learning at the workplace is focused on the development of work-related capacities and skills.

When employees believe that these capacities and skills are fixed, they tend to hold on to their current tasks where they perform well in order to avoid failure. To them, competence validation is more important than competence acquisition – in other words, learning.

In contrast employees who believe that their capacities are malleable are more willing to engaged in learning new skills and invest in career development. They actually enjoy the experience and become more confident as they learn and master new skills.

We found that older employees who believe that their capacities are malleable see training as an opportunity to enhance their capabilities. Their attitude towards training is no different from those of younger employees: they want to learn.

But when they view their capacities as fixed, we found older employees to be less willing to undergo training than younger employees.

As for young adults starting out in their careers, it is only through their work experience that they learn more about the types of work they find easy or difficult to master.

Thus, even if a career starter believes that a person’s capabilities are fixed, he or she will put effort into learning and training to find out more about their own capabilities and enhance their experience.

Supervisor support

An additional factor affecting training attitudes is perception of supervisorial support. While a supportive supervisor facilitates a positive attitude among younger as well as older employees, a less supportive supervisor does not encourage older employees to have a keen interest in training.

In fact, older employees see the lack of supervisorial support as reflective of prevailing negative expectations about older people, reinforcing the perception that they have limited cognitive ability.

Finally, we observed a Pygmalion effect—a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby employees act in accordance with the beliefs of their supervisor. In this case supervisors who believe that older workers prefer tasks they have already mastered can lead to an environment in which their older subordinates are expected to keep their current tasks rather than take up new challenges.

Without any intervention, this undermines the developmental opportunities and attitudes of the older workers and reinforces the perception that they are less motivated and less willing to learn.

Given that people’s early beliefs tend to play a role across working lives, younger employees should be encouraged to adopt the malleable mindset that hopefully produces lasting effects for their developmental progress.

Likewise firms would do well ensure first-line supervisors are aware that their explicit and implicit behaviours influence workers’ developmental attitudes.

In other words, as well as verbal persuasion and the allocation of resources to encourage older employees to take part in learning activities, other supportive signals should be embedded in their day-to-day supervisory practices.

For instance, supervisors could challenge them by assigning tasks and roles that are different from their current ones, yet not too different.

This signals that the firm trusts the older employees to be able to learn, thus boosting workers’ expectations of the benefits of learning.

  • Author Profile

    Dr Irene de Pater is an Assistant Professor at NUS Business School, Department of Management and Organization, specialising in job challenge, employability, the aging workforce, gender at work, and career development. Click here for a full profile

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