The Myths of the Older Worker

Age is just a number. And it’s a number that’s ever-increasing in many ways. In 1990, the ratio of active workers to retired pensioners was approximately 6:1. Now that we’re rapidly approaching the year 2025, that ratio is plummeting to 2:1. This weighs too heavily on the economy, and something must be done to alleviate it. The most likely way to combat this is to increase the retirement age and keep older people at work.

In fact, this trend is already in motion; by the year 2050, our estimated retirement age could be 70 or even older. So, for the young people just entering the workforce: no need to make retirement plans any time soon. For those firmly rooted in the working world already, this means that we’ll be seeing more and more older employees dotted around in our organisations. And with the proportion of older workers on the rise, it’s important to address a few misconceptions surrounding them.

The image of the older worker has become tethered to some unhelpful stereotypes. As is the case with stereotypes, this means that we automatically attribute defects – and less often, qualities – to individuals before even having met them. As a result, negative stereotypes are one of the reasons why older people are often overlooked in hiring processes and aren’t given equal opportunities for learning and development as their younger counterparts are. So, what exactly are these misconceptions?

A now-classic study by Ng and Feldman sought to gather up the most prevalent stereotypes attributed to older workers and test just how true they were. So, they identified and combined 418 different studies on age stereotyping research, amassing a total of over 200,000 participants, and re-examined all of the data together. The six most common stereotypes were unearthed. Compared to their younger co-workers, older workers are seen as:

1. Less motivated

2. Less willing to participate in training and career development

3. More resistant and less willing to change

4. Less trusting

5. Less healthy

6. More vulnerable to work/family imbalance

Out of the six stereotypes, only the second statement (“Less willing to participate in training and career development”) turned out to be true. Every other stereotype was debunked. In fact, the research found that older people were actually more motivated, less resistant and more willing to change, more trusting, healthier, and less vulnerable to work/family imbalance than younger workers. What’s more, the researchers deduced that one of the reasons why older workers may be less willing to participate in training and career development is because of a stereotype aftereffect that was mentioned earlier – older workers simply aren’t given as many opportunities for learning and development as their younger colleagues.

So, with that in mind, it seems we have something to look forward to. Let’s keep this piece of research in mind as we welcome more older employees into the workplace – because we’ll be one of them too in due course.

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