Let’s be honest. We all think that older workers slow down with age. As a result we often make comments to that effect and have an expectation that we will have to replace older workers with younger ones. I think there is built in age discrimination in our society as a result of these expectations. Research however has shown us that those expectations may be unfounded.
Not as forgetful as we thought
According to author Jeremy Reid, author of PsyBlog, linguistic researchers in Germany have discovered that older people don’t forget, they just have too much to remember. It is much more difficult to sort out 2000 names than it is 200 names. The brain has just has more information to process when you are older than when you are young. As they said “People face a similar problem with names: as they age, they learn more names, so one name is harder to recall because it is competing with a larger pool of alternate names in memory.” Computer memory faced the same problem. So it is not the ability to process it is just the amount of information that must be sorted through to produce the memory.
The linguists argue there is “Even better news for the ageing population is that older people are actually making better use of the extra information that comes with experience.” In fact in some tasks older people may do better because of the associations they have made between things during their lives.
Everyone recognizes that diseases, like Alzheimer’s, do have an effect on cognitive function. But the researchers don’t believe cognitive decline is a natural function of aging. We are all aware of someone who was sharp late into their life. But one thing they found was that building the expectation in someone that they should suffer cognitive decline actually sped the process up. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The researchers conclude by saying
““…population aging is seen as a problem because of the fear that older adults will be a burden on society; what is more likely is that the myth of cognitive decline is leading to an absurd waste of human potential and human capital. It thus seems likely that an informed understanding of the cognitive costs and benefits of aging will benefit all society, not just its older members.”
It would be well to remember this in the workplace as we sort through the performance of older workers. Don’t build the expectation in your employees that they should be slowing down. Don’t let them buy into the myth either. Focus on performance. Not only will you have better workers and better performance you will also avoid the possibility of age discrimination.