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Older workers can be more reliable and productive than their younger counterparts

It’s a real mistake to assume that “old” and “tech” are opposites.

Now 76, MIT professor Barbara Liskov won the Association for Computing Machinery's A.M. Turing Award, one of the highest honors in science and engineering, for her pioneering work in the design of computer programming languages.
Donna Coveney

The words “high tech” and “young” go together like peanut butter and jelly. We think of twentysomethings creating billion-dollar companies in their dorm rooms or garages.

But what about the words “high tech” andold”? We visualize befuddled elders who can't find their way around a keyboard and have to ask their grandkids, “What’s an app?”

But, in fact, older workers bring skills to many jobs that younger workers can’t duplicate. Even if their detailed tech savvy is not as good as those of the 20-year-olds, they bring different skills of great value to the table.

A major international study, the 2010 Cogito Study, punched a sizable hole in the commonly held notion that veteran employees are the old gray mares of the workforce, dim and slow.

In fact, older workers’ productivity was more consistent than younger workers’. The study compared 101 young adults (20–31) and 103 older adults (65–80) on 12 different tasks over 100 days. These included tests of cognitive abilities, perceptual speed, episodic memory and working memory. Researchers expected that the younger workers would perform more consistently over time, while the older workers would be more variable.

But the data show something very different. The 65–to-80-year-old workers’ performance was actually more stable, less variable from day to day than that of the younger group.

Maybe so, but what about their performance over time? Surely, older workers would learn less, remember less and take longer to learn than younger workers.

Wrong again. In fact, the older adults’ cognitive performance was more consistent over time than that of the younger workers. Why? Probably because the older workers’ wealth of experience enabled them to design strategies to solve problems. In addition, their motivation was higher than the younger workers’, and they were more stable and less erratic.

“On balance, older employees’ productivity and reliability is higher than that of their younger colleagues,” says Axel Börsch-Supan of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. This startling conclusion is bolstered by other data showing that older people are more focused, less distracted and more able to zero in on the job at hand.

Experience helps older workers compensate for the physical and mental changes that accompany aging. Older workers have been shown to perform well when it comes to organization, writing and problem solving.

“It comes with experience,” says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business. “Older employees soundly thrash their younger colleagues. Every aspect of job performance gets better as we age,” he declares. “I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn’t. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense.”

And older workers can learn high-tech skills if they are given the opportunity and incentive to do so. It’s a real mistake to conclude that they can’t. After all, mountains of data show that the human brain is plastic; we can master new material and organize and integrate knowledge all through our lives if we are relatively healthy, forward-looking and open to new experiences.

The old, narrow age lens has led to incredible distortions and misunderstandings. We often don’t see the possibilities because we aren’t looking for them — especially in the high-tech world, which worships at the altar of youth. Our ageism directs our attention toward youth and away from older people.

Today, we tend to write off people who do things that violate our ideas about aging as “special cases” or oddities. Their stories don’t apply to the rest of us. When a 64-year-old woman, Diana Nyad, swims from Cuba to Florida; or when Barbara Liskov, at 73, leads MIT’s Programming Methodology Group and wins a prestigious Turing Award; or when famed architect Frank Gehry, now 87, opens two museums, one in Panama City and one in Paris, we say, “Good for them, but what does it have to do with me?

We think the same thing when we read about Harold Scheraga, a Cornell University protein chemist now in his 90s, the oldest NIH investigator. Since 1947, he has published more than 1,200 papers, 20 of them in 2008. “I’m very productive and making good progress,” Scheraga says. “I’ll keep going as long as I’m sane and my health is holding up. Only when somebody — my peers or myself — says that my science is washed up will I quit.”

We need to embrace our “outliers” and take them as models of what can be. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer argues for “the psychology of possibility,” saying that even if only one person accomplishes something, that’s proof that it is possible. We may not choose to swim from Cuba to Florida in our 60s, but Nyad’s feat shows all of us that much more is possible than we might have imagined. “If we open up our minds, a world of possibility presents itself.”

As our youthful workforce shrinks, we need to encourage the creativity of our older workers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 81, reminds us that “Age isn’t chronological, in my view. Age is very much individual. Some people age faster than others. You can see that everywhere. Some people lose brain cells faster than others. Some people lose body functions faster than others. So if you keep all those things, there is no reason age is any kind of a deterrent.”

Rosalind C. Barnett (l) and Caryl Rivers

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of “The Age of Longevity: Re-Imagining Tomorrow for Our New Long Lives” (Rowman and Littlefield) and “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy” (Tarcher/Penguin). A professor of journalism at Boston University, Rivers was awarded the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from the Society of Professional Journalists for distinguished achievement in journalism, as well as a Gannett Freedom Forum Journalism Grant for research on media. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and received the 2013 Work Life Legacy Award from the Families and Work Institute.

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