The myth that older employees are less productive is a self-fulfilling prophecy

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It’s hardly a new phenomenon, but we live in a culture that promotes youth over experience at every turn. In corporate settings, older employees are stereotypically believed to be less competent than their younger counterparts, slower to get important tasks done, and overall just less up-to-date on the latest goings-on in their respective fields. 

What the myth does to older employees

Unfortunately, these preconceived notions about older workers often turn out to be a needless self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a new set of research just released by the University of Basel in Switzerland. Essentially, many older workers end up believing these cultural stereotypes about themselves even when they aren’t true, inevitably leading to an entirely avoidable decline in one’s quality of work and social distance from co-workers.

It’s hard for the young among us to really wrap our minds around it, but these findings make a lot of sense once we put ourselves in our older counterparts’ shoes. The entire world is telling them they’re washed up, forgetful, and obsolete. At a certain point, even the most strong-willed 55-year old worker in an office filled with 20-somethings is going to start doubting themselves.

Employees over the age of 50 are routinely given less responsibility and a reduced role in favor of younger, up and coming workers. While it’s obviously important to focus on the future, this approach is leaving millions of competent and exemplary workers feeling increasingly marginalized. 

Making matters worse, these prevailing cultural beliefs can also lead to older workers feeling disconnected from their co-workers and employer in general. No matter anyone’s age, if someone doesn’t feel a connection with their company, they’re going to be less inclined to work hard at their job and do their best. Ultimately, many older adults end up retiring early because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.

This last finding is particularly ironic because a number of previous studies have found that older adults are almost always more stable from a social perspective than their younger peers, and in a broad sense, happier as well. So, the people in the office perhaps most capable of spreading some cheer usually feel too distant to engage with their co-workers in a meaningful way.

Look, there’s no denying that we’re all bound to lose a cognitive step or two as we grow older. The brain, just like every other part of our body, breaks down gradually over time. But there’s a big difference between legitimate dementia and needing an extra three seconds to remember that Bill from accounting called. 

These slight mental lapses shouldn’t have any real impact on an employee’s performance and value. The real trouble occurs when that older worker starts to internalize the belief that they are “slowing down” mentally. Many research initiatives have found that this self-defeating belief leads to a decline in work performance.

The findings of the study

Researchers conducted four experiments for this study in total, consisting of 1306 employees between the ages of 50 and 76. The participants came from a variety of professional fields. They discovered that the more an older employee reported internalizing negative age stereotypes, the less likely they were to interact socially with their colleagues.

“Fewer negative age stereotypes would not only enable older employees to maintain fulfilling social contacts in the workplace, but the professional potential of older employees could also be better capitalized,” comments project leader Prof. Dr. Jana Nikitin in a press release. “This could, in turn, contribute to the solution of economic and social challenges in connection with the latest demographic developments.”

It’s impossible to completely do away with these age stereotypes, and the emphasis being placed on youth in offices all over the country isn’t going away. Any business would be doing themselves a great disservice if they didn’t ensure that their young workers were motivated and taken care of. That being said, there’s no reason for older employees to be left out in the cold. Taking the time to make sure the older members of a team feel just as valuable and included can benefit both that worker and the company as a whole.

The full study can be found here, published in Work, Aging, and Retirement.