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Stereotypes and the Older Worker

Almost all negative generalizations about employees over the age of 40 are not true, says this analysis of four decades of data.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Evaluating Six Common Stereotypes about Older Workers with Meta-Analytical Data (Fee or subscription required)

Authors: Thomas W.H. Ng (University of Hong Kong) and Daniel C. Feldman (University of Georgia)

Publisher: Personnel Psychology; vol. 65, no. 4

Date Published: November 2012

Older employees get a bad rap in the workplace, according to this recent analysis of close to 400 studies about their performance, which finds that nearly all negative stereotypes about this group are unfounded. As the number of older workers continues to swell, this paper suggests, managers should reconsider widely held misconceptions that often lead to age discrimination.

In 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55 percent of U.S. employees were older than 40. By 2018, the 55- to 75-year-old segment of the workforce will increase by 11 million, a 2009 study predicted, accounting for almost a quarter of the working population. Even before the Great Recession, older workers were postponing their retirement in larger numbers—and that trend has only accelerated since the financial crisis began.

But negative stereotypes can hinder these workers. Previous research has shown that managers typically favor youthful potential over experience. This bias not only has an appreciable effect on older workers’ health, quality of life, and decisions about retirement age, but can also prove costly for companies that find themselves facing age discrimination lawsuits or struggling to retain knowledgeable employees.

This paper examines six of the most common and damaging stereotypes: Compared with younger workers, older employees are (1) less motivated, (2) less willing to engage in training and career development programs, (3) more resistant to change, (4) not as trusting, (5) more likely to experience health problems that affect their work, and (6) more vulnerable to work–family conflicts.

The authors found empirical support for only one of those stereotypes. Older workers, on average, are indeed less likely to engage in career development—an attitude that is fostered, at least in part, by the prevalence of training programs skewed to younger employees. The five other stereotypes were clearly off the mark.

The authors conducted a meta-analysis of all empirical studies published from the early 1970s through 2011 that examined the relationship between age and the six stereotypes. They eliminated all laboratory-based studies, focusing exclusively on research based in real-world settings that involved active (not retired) employees. A meta-analysis of previous research was preferable for this subject, the authors write, because it allowed them to eliminate random measurement errors and make stronger inferences about the effects of age.

After searching several academic databases, the authors came up with 380 empirical articles. About 5 percent had been published in the 1970s and 1980s, 16 percent in the 1990s, 37 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the remaining 42 percent since 2005. The growing number of papers in recent years is a reflection of the increasing size and importance of the older workforce, the authors note.

The authors performed several regression analyses, controlling for workers’ tenure at a particular company in order to differentiate age stereotypes from the effects of long-term employment.

Because the accumulated empirical evidence failed to support five of the six stereotypes, managers should strive to ensure that their firms don’t subscribe to these fallacies, the authors write. Companies can use three primary strategies to combat ageism, research has shown.

The first, blinding, involves withholding workers’ ages from decision makers with responsibility for hiring, firing, performance evaluations, and promotions. This approach creates practical problems, however, because direct managers will likely already know their employees’ ages and senior managers may need that information to gauge the context and trajectory of employees’ or applicants’ careers. Managers can also turn to affirmative action, treating older workers in a preferential way to counteract the damaging effects of the stereotypes, but a 2011 study showed that such programs are difficult to implement and can lead to reverse discrimination. The third strategy, raising consciousness about age stereotypes, is the most promising way forward, the authors say.

In employing that strategy, managers should carefully track personnel decisions to look for patterns of age discrimination. Increasing opportunities for employees of all ages to work side by side could help reduce negative stereotyping. And managers could directly confront the issue, evoking positive stereotypes about older employees by highlighting their experience and judgment. Holding frank discussions about how age stereotypes play out in the workplace can reduce negative perceptions and also increase the well-being of older employees.

Because they found some evidence that older workers are less willing to participate in training exercises, the authors posit several explanations as well as possible responses to that finding for managers to consider. The first explanation is that as people get older, their ability to memorize or recall data declines, according to a number of studies cited by the authors. This change often makes traditional classroom settings unappealing to the oldest ranks of employees, who might respond better to less rigid approaches. Another possibility is that older workers may not see the benefits of continuing their professional development. To counteract that view by older workers, managers should resist the temptation to tailor their job-training seminars toward younger employees, instead taking care to gear them to those in their middle and late careers as well. Otherwise, the authors warn, this particular stereotype will increasingly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bottom Line:
Most stereotypes about older workers don’t hold water. As the average age of the labor force continues to rise, managers should shed several long-held misconceptions about older employees, de-emphasize age in personnel decisions, and take a more active approach to celebrating the positive attributes of highly experienced employees.

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