Six advantages of older workers

Older workers often face discrimination. But research shows they can drive innovation, increase productivity and bring expertise and stability to the workplace.

John Crowley • 
Six advantages of older workers

New data from the ONS tells us that the labour market is still finding it hard to attract and retain older workers. Economic inactivity – those neither working nor looking for work – among the 50-64 age group has risen again, increasing by 0.3% in the previous quarter. There are now almost 270,000 more economically inactive people in this age group than before the pandemic. We know that part of the reason for the rise in economic activity of older workers is due to ill health and a desire for retirement. However, illegal age-based discrimination against older workers is most likely contributing to the situation.

Research shows that 37% of people between the age of 50 and 69 feel they are at a disadvantage when applying for jobs due to their age, compared to 20% between the age of 30 and 49, and 15% between the age of 18-29.

Other research reported in the London School of Economics journal revealed that it was far more common for older workers to experience negative and unfounded stereotypes. These included perceptions that they are: less adaptable, lack physical capabilities, are technophobic, are less trainable, and are resistant to change. It’s these negative and unfounded stereotypes that result in unfair discrimination meaning older workers are less likely to be shortlisted for interviews, hired, offered training, or promoted than other age groups.

Given the current environment, we felt it was time to debunk some of these unsubstantiated claims about older workers. Here are six advantages of older workers that people managers should be aware of.

1. Can act as mentors to younger workers and drive personal development

Workplace mentoring is when an employee with expert knowledge and advanced experience, (the mentor), supports the psychosocial and career development of a less experienced employee, (the mentee). Sun Microsystems showed that mentoring really can boost careers with their data analysis of 1,000 employees over a 5-year period, revealing that mentees were 5 times more likely to be promoted up the ranks of people management.

Since older workers typically come with a wealth of experience and knowledge, they have the unique ability to act as invaluable workplace mentors to youth. They can empower your less experienced staff, and act as a catalyst in your career development and succession planning processes.

2. Can help drive successful innovation in your business

The ‘wunderkind’ culture that characterises success in Silicon Valley has created the perception that innovation and entrepreneurialism are confined to youth. While this youthful zest and vigour are to be commended, we should not let this obscure the fact that research shows that older, more tenured people are more successful entrepreneurs. The average age of a successful start-up founder is 45, and those over 40 are three times more likely to create successful companies. This reason for this is thought to be due to their ‘patient and collaborative nature’, and their ‘lack of a need to prove myself’ attitude that tends to accompany youth. This means older workers may be better equipped to successfully drive innovation and change within your business, a critical competency for the volatile and rapidly changing modern world.

3. An increase in the share of older workers has been shown to increase productivity

Hiring more older workers improves the age diversity in your organisation, and according to the OECD, more age diversity leads to increased productivity than less age diversity. The OECD data revealed that a simple 10% increase in the share of older workers can lead to an increase in productivity of 1.1%.

4. Older workers bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise

True, scientific evidence tells us that our raw mental processing power declines after the age of 30, but our knowledge and expertise – which are the main predictors of job performance (according to this HBR article), keep increasing even after the age of 80.

5. Adaptability

The idea that older workers can’t adapt to change is a total fallacy.  Today’s older workers have endured turbulent economic times over the past 3 decades and as a result, are likely to have experienced regular change during their careers. This means they are accustomed to change and well able to adapt to the associated need for new: thinking, skills, ways of working, and technologies. Just look at Facebook, which according to the Guardian newspapers has rapidly become the domain of older people and a great example of older workers rapidly adapting to new technologies.

6. Resilience

Older workers are likely to have experienced challenging events during their careers which have helped to build high levels of resilience that they can exhibit when faced with present-day challenges.

While we noted in the introduction that age discrimination occurs across all age groups, the over 50s are disproportionately affected by this. We are not advocating positive discrimination towards older workers, as this too is illegal. Rather, we’re trying to help remove any subconscious bias that may exist where hiring older workers are concerned. If you would like to remove all forms of age bias and prevent the disproportionate treatment of older workers or job candidates, then this can be achieved by adopting the recommendations from Good Recruitment for Older Workers (Grow), a guide prepared by the Centre for Ageing Better.