Older Workers, Bolder Earners?
We’ve talked a lot about the advantages young people contribute to the workforce, but there is also a lot to be said about what older workers bring to the table, and how a mix of youthful and mature employees can lead to competitive advantages with the right management. Plus, there is no shortage of older workers in Canada. According to a Statistics Canada finding published early this year, 60% of Canadians who left a long-term job (12 years or longer) in their late fifties re-entered the workforce within a decade of leaving it.
But still, in a time when mandatory retirement is a thing of the past and people are living longer than ever, many older workers who have left the workforce are having trouble getting back in based on stereotypes and prejudices that are utterly unfounded.
Myths about older workers
- That they are absent more often than younger workers due to illness.
- That they are mentally slower than younger workers.
- That they are resistant to technology and are therefore not sufficiently tech savvy or willing to learn.
- That they can’t handle stress as well as younger workers.
So just how groundless are these preconceptions?
Slow and steady wins the race
Regarding the issue of absenteeism, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOH), while older workers can be out longer due to illness or injury, overall they are absent less frequently than their younger counterparts. The CCOH also addresses the assumption that older workers are mentally slower than younger workers, citing that while they are slower to make decisions, they tend to make better decisions and are more accurate in their work.
This latter point coincides with findings that older workers on average demonstrate better attention-to-detail and problem-solving skills, which benefits them in their efforts to learn new technologies quickly. With that said, older workers know when to “log off”, not only from their devices, but from the white noise of the office around them too. In fact, according to Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, and coauthor of Managing the Older Worker, older workers’ propensity for eliminating distractions – something younger workers are less likely to do – is linked to the accuracywith which older workers complete their work. It’s also linked to the higher communications skills older workers tend to display. Having spent time in the workforce before the rise of email – and long before the rise of social media – older workers have honed their phone, interpersonal, and writing skills (since, once upon a time, written communication, existing only on paper, could not be “recalled” with the click of a mouse or followed up with a new message travelling literally at the speed of light).
One thing at a time, my dear
Older workers’ ability to eliminate distractions also ties in with myth of multitasking – a “skill” many younger workers boast about. However, according to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, the human brain can’t do more than one thing at a time. Rather, we have to switch between doing one thing to doing another, and the price for that is a kind of mental delay, which gets longer as we get older. So while younger workers can switch between tasks with less of a delay than older workers, it really isn’t advantageous to do so anyway. Focusing on one thing – which older workers tend to do – without any delay leads to more accurate results. Furthermore, Gazzaley’s research shows that the trouble with switching between tasks can start as soon as someone’s early 20s – precisely when that person enters into the workforce full time. And the key to slowing this deterioration is exercise. Therefore, it’s possible that a physically active worker in their 70s will have less of a “multitasking” delay than an inactive twenty- or thirty-something.
It’s not the end of the world
In addition, having less family obligations and less interest in climbing the corporate ladder (see below), older workers’ ability to compartmentalize their work also helps them to handle stress better than many younger workers. After all, with age comes perspective.
Not young enough to know everything…but old enough to know everyone
Another advantage older workers bring to employers is their extensive collection of quality connections. Having worked for longer than their younger counterparts, older workers tend to have built solid professional networks, giving their employer access to even more experienced and wiser workers who possess all the advantages discussed above, not to mention impressive professional networks all their own. In fact, a 2007 study conducted by The Centre on Aging and Work at Boston College concluded that, in the US at least, more than 46% of employers surveyed said their older workers have stronger professional and client networks. Less than 30% said that about their mid-career employees and less than 17% said that about their early-career employees.
There’s more to life than money
Finally, employers have to ask themselves why Canada has such an abundance of older workers. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they’re in it for the money and nothing more. However, according to Statistic Canada’s study, that’s clearly not the case. In fact, many people who re-entered the workforce after retirement had relatively high earnings during their careers as well as registered retirement plans. This fact is indicative of those people’s desire to work. They’re eager, yet not out for the same “glory”, so to speak, which drives many younger workers to think more about themselves – and to think more about jumping jobs.
It takes a village
However, it’s important to reinforce that this discussion about the pluses of hiring older workers is not meant to disparage the attributes of younger workers – attributes that they have in spades. Success, after all, requires not only wisdom, loyalty, and experience, but also vigour, ambition, and a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. That’s why the most resilient workforce is one that spans generations, maximizing the strengths of each one.