Old but not out

Does younger necessarily mean better? In the field of human resource management there is a widespread perception that fresh talent more often than not is synonymous with young talent.

The general focus of HR managers around the world is to centre on the goal of enhancing job performance and while studies show that job performance is rather stable over time, it is not entirely true.

A person’s performance level may increase due to training and learning but may decrease due to transient factors such as fatigue or more enduring factors such as aging.

So do characteristics associated with life-span affect job performance?

Let’s take cognitive ability. Fluid intelligence – the ability to think, reason and solve problems – declines with age; while crystallised intelligence – learning from past experiences – does not.

What follows is that new things can be learnt by older employees, however, older employees usually need a little more time to learn a new technology or a new approach at work.

Only very late in life does the biological process of a sharp reduction of all parts of mental ability starts to kick in. This usually comes at a very advanced age – later than 80 years of age – when most people are long retired from work.

Peak performance

On the other hand, one of the more interesting results of job performance research is that age does not affect job performance at all. Why is this so, even though every person’s experience appears to be that his or her memory becomes worse with age while learning new things does not become any easier?

Like old wine, there are positive effects of ageing on performance

The first issue is that there is a certain degree of plasticity in the gradual reduction of intelligence over one’s life span. People employed in highly complex jobs show fewer signs of reduction in cognitive ability with age, compared to people in less complex jobs. In fact, the effect of job complexity on cognitive flexibility is more pronounced in older than in younger individuals.

The second issue is that, like old wine, there are positive effects of ageing on performance. Age reduces absenteeism, tardiness, counterproductive behaviour and workplace aggression.

Indeed organisational citizenship – that is the extent to which an individual’s social and helping behaviour contributes to an organisation’s success – has been shown to enhance with age.

Thus, overall performance may not suffer at all because older people are so useful in many ways at the workplace. Similarly, initiative taking – going beyond what is expected at work, is the same across different age groups at work.

Seizing the moment

The third way that older people deal with performance issues is that they may compensate for losses in cognitive ability by, for instance, writing things down, optimising their approaches to tasks by way of effort and time allocation, and selecting where possible those tasks that they are good at.

One strategy in particular is called SOC, standing for selection, optimisation and compensation. It can be used by older workers to maintain, if not improve, performance.

It entails selecting job tasks that are central; seizing the right moment, investing resources and honing the skills and knowledge to perform the tasks and maintaining performance through alternative means.

For example, the late concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was performing well into his 80s, maintained high standards because:

  • he played fewer musical pieces (selection),
  • he practised these pieces more often (optimisation)
  • he counteracted his loss of mechanical speed by playing more slowly before fast segments so that the latter appeared even quicker (compensation).

A fourth reason for good performance at old age is evidence that older workers become more conscientious in their occupation and focus on achieving results. This in turn enables them to use such compensating mechanisms more effectively to keep up good performance.

The upshot of all of this is that the actual performance of older employees does not reduce across the life span. The usual stereotype of the older employee not being able to deal with the work anymore, is just that – a prejudice without scientific foundations.

In some cases performance of older employees may even be higher – whenever conscientious work is important and whenever the older employee can rely on experience.

In addition, whenever the issue is that the employees have to deal with customers or helping along team work, the older worker may actually be better and more productive overall than the younger ones.

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