Why Your Grandmother Is Still Working

Older workers can be great workers

Posted Aug 18, 2016

When we hear the words “older worker,” we picture someone at a low-level, part-time menial job, plodding along, doing routine work, long past creativity and new ideas.

But as Labor Day approaches, such notions need a serious rethink, according to new research. Recent news stories underscore what’s really going on.

In 2014, world-renown architect, Paul Gehry, 87, opened two museums, one in Panama City, Panama, and one in Paris. And, in 2015, a new building of his was opened in Sydney, Australia.

At 87, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has launched an incredibly ambitious new project: to save the species that share the planet with us. The only way to do that is to preserve their habitat, setting half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. He says, “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them.”

At 83, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is the senior justice on the liberal side of the Supreme Court. She has an army of vocal, ardent young admirers who refer to her as “The Notorious RBG” and who have set up a website that sells mugs, T-shirts and all the paraphernalia associated with a major rock star.

Most of us see such high achievers as “outliers,” special people who have nothing to do with the rest of us. But, in fact, in what we call “The Age of Longevity” more and more people are staying in the workforce well beyond the traditional retirement age, and many are in challenging jobs.

Conventional wisdom has it that older workers—many of them women—have a hard time focusing, are easily distracted, have short attention spans, and are, as a result, less productive than younger workers. People are often astonished when older adults remain productive. John Kenneth Galbraith, the famed Harvard economist, was hard at work in his 90s when he said, “I’m the world’s leading opponent of the ‘still’ syndrome. You know: ‘Are you still working? Still thinking? Still alive?’”

But older workers are breaking all the “rules”—not riding off into the sunset of the golden years, playing golf, fishing, and sitting by the pool. Instead, many are joining the ranks of the full-time employed.

Sometime around 2001, the wind shifted, and what had been a rare occurrence became normative. By 2007, 55 percent of workers 65 and older were employed full time, and the trend has been accelerating rapidly. As of 2014, 60 percent of workers age 65 and older had full-time jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The startling fact is that the only age group in which labor force participation is growing is workers over 55—in contrast to the steady decline among younger workers. Even more striking, this trend is noticeable in people 65 and older.

Overall, the percent of workers 65 and over in the labor force, although small, has grown 300 percent (from 2 percent to 6 percent) between 2000 and 2015, according to the ADP National Employment Report.  

Another surprise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64, working full-time, had the highest median weekly earnings of any age segment: $930 and $903, respectively. Meanwhile, those 20 to 24 had weekly earnings of only $493. Those who are 25 to 34 earned $736.

Employers aren’t keeping older working on the job for charity’s sake.  Data are streaming in showing that older workers are in fact better workers—smart, steady, and stable.

A major international study (done by the Max Planck Institute in Germany in 2010), the 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 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. 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.

It appears that older workers have more personal resources such as confidence and job-related expertise than younger workers. And these resources enable them to use more active and effective coping strategies when faced with demanding job situations, after taking into account differences in job stress.

Importantly, when older workers use these strategies, their stress reduction lasts for at least 8 months.

One over-65 manager told the AARP, “The patience you develop as you get older helps you deal with stressful situations. A crisis comes up and rather than getting emotional you're more likely to think, ‘This too shall pass.’ When you can be dispassionate about a problem, it’s easier to see what’s urgent and where to put your resources.”

You might ask, don’t people’s abilities decline? As people age, some cognitive and physical abilities do change—however, this does not make older workers better or worse than younger colleagues.

“There is no evidence of a substantive decline in ability in most people until well past the end of a typical working life. Aging affects everyone differently, and it is not possible to make predictions about any one individual’s capability,” says the 2014 UK report Productivity and Age.

Overall, the best evidence we have tells us to reject the strongly held beliefs that there are inevitable across-the-board age-related declines in cognitive performance in late adulthood. These beliefs have had a strong negative effect on employee productivity as well as on managerial decision-making.

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.

Moreover, many older people do not think of themselves as creative. After all they are no longer young, therefore, they believe they are incapable of novel thinking.

But it’s critical today to break free of outdated thinking and to understand that age alone tells us almost nothing. Senator 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 deterrent.”

A version of this article appeared earlier in the Los Angeles Times.

Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers are the co-authors of The Age of Longevity: Reimagining Tomorrow for Our New Long Lives (Rowman & Littlefield).