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The Aging Workforce: Embracing the Age-Performance Paradox

As organizations face an aging workforce, leaders are confronted with challenges and opportunities regarding the performance and productivity of their older employees. Research demonstrates contradictory findings about the relationship between age and job performance, known as the "age-performance paradox." While some studies show a clear decline in certain skills with age, others reveal many strengths that can benefit organizations.


Today we will take a look at the research on this paradox and provide guidance for leaders on how to respond by embracing the unique contributions of all ages.


The Age-Performance Paradox in Research

Early research found clear declines in abilities tied directly to age, such as fluid intelligence and processing speed (Salthouse, 2009). However, more recent meta-analyses reveal a more complex picture. In one study of 22,794 employees across multiple organizations, job performance was found to initially increase with age through around 50 before beginning to slowly decline (Ng & Feldman, 2008). Other strengths seen to increase with age include crystallized intelligence such as expertise, judgment, problem-solving, and mentoring skills (Ng & Feldman, 2013).


Soft Skills Strengthen with Age: Research specifically shows older workers outperforming younger ones in skills valuable for leadership and collaboration. One meta-analysis of 68 studies found the highest-rated employee characteristic was cooperativeness, which increased linearly with age (Ng & Feldman, 2013). Older employees are also seen as more dependable (Ng & Feldman, 2008), easier to manage, and able to handle stress better (Ng & Feldman, 2013). Soft skills strengthened with life and career experiences give seasoned employees an edge.


Organizational Experience Provides Tangible Benefits: As workers gain years on the job, they accumulate profound organizational knowledge and expertise. One review found clear performance advantages for employees with tenure, likely due to deep understanding of company culture, processes, customers and industry (Ng & Feldman, 2013). Length of service has also been linked to lower employee turnover (Griffeth et al., 2000), reducing costly replacement and retraining expenses for leaders.


Preferences Shift Towards Mentoring Younger Generations: Research demonstrates older generations' increasing preference for roles leveraging wisdom and experience over physical demands (Kooij et al., 2008). As such, they often enjoy mentoring and developing less experienced colleagues. This provides a mutually beneficial opportunity for intergenerational knowledge transfer unique to experienced hires (Kooij & Zacher, 2016). Leveraging mentoring strengths can boost engagement for all ages while ensuring critical institutional knowledge is preserved (Egri & Ralston, 2004).


Embracing an Intergenerational Workforce: Given the paradoxical research findings, leaders must avoid simplistic assumptions that any trait uniformly declines or improves with age. Instead, an enlightened approach recognizes each life stage brings distinct, valuable strengths (Kooij & van de Voorde, 2011). An intergenerational workforce allows organizations to benefit from the broad range of abilities that develop across careers. Leaders who embrace this diversity will gain competitive advantages in innovation, problem-solving, customer relationships and more.


Implementing an Intergenerational Strategy

To effectively leverage experience and expertise across all age groups, organizations must thoughtfully implement inclusive people strategies and practices:


  • Conduct Unbiased Recruitment and Selection: Remove age or tenure preferences from hiring criteria and assessments to consider the full range of candidates. Evaluate each based on qualifications for the specific role's requirements regardless of age (O'Cinneide, 2018).

  • Use Flexible Job Crafting: Allow employees to modify jobs to best play to their individual strengths over time. This can involve shifting tasks, adjusting schedules or changing roles incrementally with experience (Demerouti, 2014). Maintain multi-dimensional career paths.

  • Promote Intergenerational Learning: Foster regular knowledge sharing between experienced and new hires through mentoring circles, reverse mentoring and communities of practice (Kooij et al., 2013). Set clear expectations and guide respectful interaction across ages.

  • Provide Lifelong Learning Support: Offer subsidized continuing education and professional development to all employees to stay current with role changes. Prioritize keeping in-demand hard and soft skills sharp regardless of birth year (Kooji & van de Voorde, 2011).

  • Eliminate Bias in Performance Reviews: Ensure managers are trained to assess staff based solely on work quality, behaviors and role responsibilities versus subjective age perceptions (Posthuma & Campion, 2008). Rely only on objective metrics of value added.

  • Compensate Experience Fairly: Structure total rewards programs competitively at all career stages based on qualifications and contributions instead of default policies favoring youth. Reward dedication through experience-based benefits like additional time off (Ng et al., 2008).

  • Monitor Engagement Regularly: Administer frequent multi-generational employee surveys to identify and remedy any disconnectedness or perceived unfairness before issues develop. Address problematic managers swiftly if bias is uncovered (Armstrong-Stassen & Schlosser, 2011).


Industry Example - Consulting Firms

Top consulting firms embrace an intergenerational workforce strategy to maintain expertise and best serve evolving client needs. Companies like Deloitte and PwC conduct extensive recruitment across all ages and backgrounds. They recognize each life stage brings complementary skills, pairing junior staff’s fresh perspectives with seniors’ deep institutional knowledge and strong relationships.


Flexible work arrangements allow employees at any career point to balance multiple priorities. Ongoing learning is supported through subsidized certification programs and conferences. Compensation structures fairly value experience level. And engagement surveys routinely measure inclusion perceptions to identify bias issues early. As a result, these diverse, experienced teams can address multifaceted business problems from all angles to retain clients.


Industry Example - Healthcare Organizations

Many hospitals and care providers also strategically blend generations for superior patient services. For instance, Mayo Clinic recruits experienced nurses while incentivizing them to remain through competitive benefits. This maintains critical expertise as the population ages. Reverse mentoring pairs seniors with new medical grads in areas like technology skills. Intergenerational problem-solving teams innovate new treatments combining seasoned clinical judgment and youthful innovation. And elder mentors help retain caring attitudes in younger staff through sharing wisdom. As a result, these strategies strengthen quality care at lower costs through reduced turnover.


Conclusion

By recognizing the nuanced age-performance relationship research reveals and thoughtfully implementing inclusive people strategies, organizations can gain tremendous competitive advantages from an intergenerational workforce. While some abilities naturally progress or decline with age, each life stage offers distinct, transferable strengths that benefit employers and society. Leaders who embrace diversity and value the range of skills that develop over careers will build engaged, high-performing teams capable of driving innovation and responding optimally to changing customer needs. Those who implement unbiased, flexible and mutually beneficial practices allowing employees to contribute according to their individual qualifications regardless of birth year will find loyal, dedicated staff dedicated to long-term organizational success. Looking ahead, embracing multi-generational collaboration will prove ever more critical for organizations confronting talent shortages and seeking sustained competitive differentiation.


References


  • Armstrong-Stassen, M., & Schlosser, F. (2011). Perceived organizational membership and the retention of older workers. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32(2), 319–344. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.690

  • Demerouti, E. (2014). Design your own job through job crafting. European Psychologist, 19(4), 237–247. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000188

  • Egri, C. P., & Ralston, D. A. (2004). Generation cohorts and personal values: A comparison of China and the United States. Organization Science, 15(2), 210–220. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1040.0070

  • Griffeth, R. W., Hom, P. W., & Gaertner, S. (2000). A meta-analysis of antecedents and correlates of employee turnover: Update, moderator tests, and research implications for the next millennium. Journal of Management, 26(3), 463–488. https://doi.org/10.1177/014920630002600305

  • Kooij, D. T. A. M., & van de Voorde, K. (2011). How changes in subjective general health predict future time perspective, and development and generativity motives over the lifespan. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84(2), 228–247. https://doi.org/10.1348/096317910X492069

  • Kooij, D. T. A. M., de Lange, A. H., Jansen, P. G. W., Kanfer, R., & Dikkers, J. S. E. (2011). Age and work-related motives: Results of a meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32(2), 197–225. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.665

  • Kooij, D. T. A. M., & Zacher, H. (2016). Why and when do learning goal orientation and attitude decrease with aging? The role of perceived remaining time and work centrality. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 146–168. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12161

  • Ng, T. W. H., & Feldman, D. C. (2008). The relationship of age to ten dimensions of job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 392–423. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.93.2.392

  • Ng, T. W. H., & Feldman, D. C. (2013). A meta-analysis of the relationships of age and tenure with innovation-related behaviour. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86(4), 585–616. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12037

  • O'Cinneide, B. (2018). Recruitment and selection discrimination and positive measures to provide equality of opportunity and treatment. International Journal of Discrimination and the Law, 15(3-4), 254-275. https://doi.org/10.1177/1358229118802793

  • Posthuma, R. A., & Campion, M. A. (2008). Age stereotypes in the workplace: Common stereotypes, moderators, and future research directions. Journal of Management, 35(1), 158–188. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206308318617

  • Salthouse, T. A. (2009). When does age-related cognitive decline begin? Neurobiology of Aging, 30(4), 507–514. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2008.09.023

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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