An Age-old Problem Understanding Older Generations in the Workplace

Mandatory retirement has been illegal in most industries for decades, but some managers are still reluctant to hire and retain workers older than 65. Frequently workers in this age group are characterized as inflexible, slower, and reluctant to evolve with technology. But most employers find that today’s older workers challenge these stereotypes and can be real assets.

Biological and psychological changes occur as we get older. Each generation is also different sociologically from other age groups. Awareness of age-related differences can empower employers to capitalize on senior workers’ positive attributes and consider making workplace adaptations for their limitations.

Biological Age-related Changes

While most stereotypes about older adults are greatly exaggerated, many biological changes do take place both physically and cognitively. Nearly every organ and system in the body is a bit less efficient than it once was, but this does not mean inevitable disease or disability. The stereotype that seniors can’t hear or see well is false, but it is true that hearing and vision are not quite as sharp as they once were when we are younger. While Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not part of the normal aging process, tip-of-the-tongue moments and slower reflex, reaction, and recall times are.

Due to changes in eyesight and hearing, consider moving an older worker’s seat at a meeting table to enable a better view of a projection screen. Recognizing normal changes that happen to the aging brain can help managers understand older workers’ behavior. For example, some older workers may be quiet during that meeting but submit great ideas a few hours later, after they’ve had time to process.

Sociological Age-related Changes

Sociologically, older workers are generally highly dedicated employees. Many seniors, particularly older women, are motivated by financial need. There are numerous advantages to deferring Social Security payments, so many seniors want to put off collecting for as long as possible. Most older adults have also witnessed steep declines in their retirement accounts, so there is a genuine need to supplement their income. Others simply did not adequately plan for retirement and require additional income from a full- or part-time job.

Generationally, workers older than 65 are known for a strong work ethic. Even if there is not a significant financial incentive, they were raised in an era that idealized hard work. They are team-oriented and unlikely to leave coworkers in a bind. This age group has likely finished raising their families so they can be open to working more hours when necessary. They are known for honoring commitments and respecting authority.

This age group also is typically good at interpersonal communication. Having worked for most of their careers without access to e-mail and texting, these workers have had to rely on their people skills to get things accomplished. They tend to also be more resourceful than younger generations who have come to rely only on the Internet for research and problem-solving.

Since this age group may have less computer experience than their younger coworkers, it is important to assess and respond to needs for training. Older workers are sometimes thought to be technologically challenged, but often it is because they have not had the opportunity to learn the appropriate skills.

Psychological Age-related Changes

Psychologist Erik Erikson believed that older adults experience a crossroads in their life: a stage he called “ego integrity vs. despair.” The concept of ego integrity is that, when a senior reviews his life thus far, he finds meaning in the way he has spent his time, which leads to wisdom and acceptance of his mortality. On the other hand, if a senior’s life review is focused on feeling resentful or disappointed about the way his time has been spent, he feels despair, which can sometimes even trigger depression.

Meaningful work often promotes increased self-worth in older adults, regardless of whether they are experiencing ego integrity or despair. In understanding this, managers can best motivate older employees by critiquing gently and praising publicly when it is earned. A manager singling out an older employee for a job well-done provides psychological benefits for the senior but also goes a long way to dispelling false stereotypes about older workers.

Tips for Accommodating Older Workers

The best strategy in managing and accommodating older workers is the same as with employees of any age: observe , identify strengths and weaknesses, and work with that person to optimize performance. Nearly every employee requires some accommodations in order to do the best job possible. For example, a manager may have to spend time with a new college graduate explaining when, and if, it is appropriate to text customers. The same concept is true with older workers.

It is also important to re-evaluate a worker’s duties as he ages during employment with an organization. For example, a 70-year-old hotel shuttle driver who has been with a company for 20 years may be better-suited to a front-desk assignment if age-related changes are interfering with driving abilities.

Older workers have so much to offer: experience, work ethic, potential to mentor, and, frequently, fewer family obligations that will interfere with work. The key to maximizing value with older employees is recognizing and accommodating their differences. v

Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C is an author, speaker, and educator. Founder of Jenerations Health Education Inc., she has more than 20 years’ experience in health care. She is a frequent speaker at national and regional conferences and was an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book, “Your 24/7 Older Parent,” is addressed to those dealing with the care of an elderly parent;www.jenerationshealth.com

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