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How age impacts work style

August 23, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Kevin Marrs

According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that older workers are more consistent and reliable than workers in their 20’s.  Not only will this be welcomed news by our readers who are getting on in years, but this research may also have some important implications for HR and OD professionals.

What the study revealed was that older people (those over 65 years old) showed less variability (i.e., more consistency) in their cognitive performance across 100 days of testing than did younger people aged 20 to 31.  The authors of the study suggest that “…the older adults’ higher consistency is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood.”  The researchers go on to argue that on balance, older worker are more productive, and are less likely to make costly errors than their younger counterparts.

The implications of this research should be clear.  Certainly the research calls into question some preconceived notions regarding older workers and their value in the workplace.  But there are other important takeaways from the research.  Consider the following:

Training is important: Training budgets were obliterated during the Great Recession.  As a result, employers are losing an important opportunity to teach younger workers strategies to solve problems and other important soft skills. The technical skills of the younger generation are clearly impressive; but are they able to use those skills to see the big picture? Of course some are; but problem-solving skills, as the research seems to suggest, tend to come from experience and development.

And, don’t forget the less formal methods of training, i.e., mentoring and coaching.  Having more experienced staff giving guidance to younger workers can be critical in developing the competencies of younger workers.

Use gamification: You have probably heard of gamification. But if you haven’t, you should get used to the term.  Wikipedia refers to gamification as the “use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context to engage users and solve problems.”  The key in the context of the Berlin research is engagement.  Gamification may be an important tool to enhance motivation, particularly for younger workers whose motivation may wane over time.

Take a closer look at your performance management systems: Beware of the stars that may burn the brightest but ultimately burn out.  Your performance management system should be designed to reward and/or recognize consistent performers as well as top performers.  Managers should also be trained or conditioned to value performance over time as distinct from the most recent or salient example of good performance.

The Berlin research highlights the fact that older workers can be productive, and have been shown to perform better than younger workers under certain conditions.  While this is just one study, it does reinforce the importance of age diversity and an in-depth understanding the strengths and weakness of our workforce across the different age groups.

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