That can lead to friction and anxiety for both workers and management — older workers worry their age will hurt their careers, and organizations worry that an aging workforce may impact their bottom line.
Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says new research shows that employees who feel younger than their age are more productive, healthier, and more likely to get promoted.
She sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to describe the research and explain how companies can make use of employees' subjective age so that everyone benefits — young and old.
Why is there so much angst about aging right now?
We're seeing a big demographic change. Older workers are staying on longer because they need more money to retire, so we're seeing four generations working together.
With the workforce aging, there are questions about whether there will be enough people to do the jobs, and companies are wondering how to handle older people staying at work longer.
This generates especially damaging stereotypes towards older workers, such as:
- They're sick, tired and hard to motivate.
- They're too comfortable, stuck in ruts, or entitled.
Companies are also concerned about making room for younger generations to advance their careers.
How much truth is behind these stereotypes?
Stereotypes about all the age groups are common and the same stereotype sometimes gets applied to everyone.
For example, we often hear how older workers are entitled and they think they're owed deference. On the other hand, we also hear how twenty-somethings are entitled and think they're owed kudos and cash without earning it.
Research is showing though that we might be focussing on the wrong thing here. Instead, if we focus on how old staff feel, we'll see a different pattern arising.
Most staff under 25 feel older than their chronological age, while most staff over 30 feel younger than their chronological age.
Staff who feel younger than their age tend to experience specific benefits such as better health, more vitality and more productivity.
Can workers in their 30s, up to even their 80s, really feel younger than they are, or is everyone just fooling themselves?
We all go through career life cycles. In our younger years we're growth and development oriented — we're getting an education, competing for positions, advancing our career.
As we move along in years, we go into a maintenance and loss-reduction mode. Here we're doing a great job and trying to ensure we stay steady in our work.
But when we enter these life phases is a matter of subjective experience, not chronological age.
So staff who see themselves as younger than they are tend to stay in a growth and development mode longer, whereas if you see yourself as older, you may enter the maintenance phase earlier.
When we're younger we tend to see an open-ended future, but as we age we see less time ahead.
How much does this have to do with where you work?
We as humans do tend to compare ourselves to others. So if you work somewhere where staff behave older than their years, there is a tendency to follow suit. If your staff group sees itself as younger than it is, you will be like that too.
Also, organizations can dictate how we see ourselves. If the organization values young and dynamic energy, staff are more likely to feel young at heart.
But if the organization is rigid in its prescriptions for the different age-groups, staff may find it hard to feel younger than their chronological age. If you're relegated to being old, and of less value, you'll feel demoralized
And if you're under 25 and stereotyped as 'just the kid,' that's also demotivating.
So you're saying if we drop the stereotypes, let staff feel their subjective age and stop dwelling on chronological age, we're better off?
Absolutely. The research shows since most of us walk around feeling younger than we actually are, this is a good thing. Staff who think this way perform better, they're more productive, they get promoted and they're healthier.
Workers who are young at heart like and want training and development opportunities.
How can organizations assist workers who don't feel their age?
These organizations have to have age-inclusive human resource practices. Those folks have an edge. These companies don't limit staff based on their chronological age.
Everyone is given access to training and career advancement opportunities. And the managers don't treat all age-groups the same — because they're not.
Age-inclusive companies realize there are different needs at different ages, and they analyze the jobs they ask staff to do. They know that if you increase autonomy and vary responsibilities, people respond positively. If you look at how interesting and challenging tasks are, and watch out for overly repetitive work, you're going to have a happier workforce.
These companies are careful not to assign work based on chronological age.
This interview was condensed and edited.
To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled: Jennifer Newman on ageism in the workplace