Age and workplace competence

Aerial view of an open office with people seated at desks in cubicles. If we say older people make more loyal and reliable employees, what does that say about younger people? And anyway, are these stereotypes valid? Ironically, public policy uses age stereotypes to overcome stereotypes about older workers. However, the connection between age and workplace competence is not supported in the research. 

One of the key issues here is that there is no clear definition of what an ‘older worker’ is. This makes it difficult to build relevant public policy. The range of ages is between 40 and 64 depending on who is doing the research.

The other issue is how to manage the intersection of age with other characteristics such as gender and work type. So, there is a need for an approach that acknowledges people of a given age are not all alike. The stereotypes are a social construct and have little to do with individuals. Hence, employment programs should be based on individual need rather than age. Indeed, older age based programs only serve to entrench the stereotypes.

Age discrimination is not related to one age group. Younger people face discrimination in the workplace too. The research indicates that the attributes canvased by advocates of older workers are not necessarily those that employers seek. 

Firefighters and two firetrucks attending to a fire.
Emergency workers transfer knowledge to new contexts. Image by Jon Pauling.

Public policy that pushes for a longer working life also makes several assumptions. People who work in jobs that cannot be done in later life, are overlooked in this scenario. And ‘productive ageing’ might not mean paid work, or that retirement is unproductive.

Population ageing has brought calls to prolong working lives. This has the potential to be a good thing for individuals and the economy. However, not everyone has a job-type that will support the extension of their paid working life.

Public policy

Policymaking should aim for measures that support all people in transition, for instance, in entry to work, job loss and re-entry to work, based on the assumption that the needs of young and old are not
much different. 

Advocates for older workers might be doing them a dis-service by perpetuating stereotypes. Younger and older workers are not in competition. Consequently both will benefit from efforts to promote their sustained employment.

Philip Taylor and Warwick Smith provide a thoughtful overview of the situation in their conference paper, Rethinking Advocacy on Ageing and Work

Professor Philip Taylor is a CUDA Board Member and presented at the UD2021 Conference in Melbourne.