Brain power

Older workers are just as keen on learning as younger workers

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

With the Age Discrimination in Employment Act coming into force back in 1967, the notion of age discrimination has a long history.  Unfortunately, it’s an issue that we still grapple with today, and whereas it’s easy to assume it’s only a problem for those in and around retirement age, a survey1 from Senior Living suggests it can kick in as early as our 40s.

The research, which saw over 1,100 Americans over 40 years of age quizzed about their workplace experiences, and particular any discrimination they experienced, found that biases kick in relatively early in terms of recruitment, promotions and compensation.

The study finds that around one in five workers over 40 have experienced age-related discrimination in some way at work, with this rising to 24% of those over 60 years of age. This wasn’t confined to explicit discrimination, as jokes and harassment related to age were also sadly commonplace.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

Often, this discrimination is related to the ability of older workers to learn new things.  For instance, a few years ago, research2 from VU University Amsterdam showed that we tend to have an unconscious bias towards viewing innovation and creativity as a young person’s game.  The research highlighted this notion that as we age, we are better at delivering stability than change.

This bias has also infiltrated the venture capital community, with Paul Graham famously quipping that he rarely backed any entrepreneur older than 32.  Recent research3 from MIT and Northwestern University highlights how not only is this discriminatory but it is also foolish, as older entrepreneurs can often be more successful than their younger peers.

The research reveals that entrepreneurial success for the under 25s is as rare as a lesser spotted unicorn. Success rates then increase later in one’s 20s and don’t decrease even into one’s 50s. Indeed, the authors note that the average age of company founders in the United States is a veritable 41.9 years of age, with the highest-growth startups being founded by entrepreneurs with 45 years under their belt. What’s more, a 50-year-old entrepreneur was 1.8 times more likely to achieve high growth than a founder in their 30s.

Research4 from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics also highlights how older people are just as capable of learning new things as their younger peers.  The study finds that people who are close to retiring are just as interested in learning new skills as their younger peers, even if there is no strict need for them to do so.  It’s an indication that we’re not retiring mentally as we age.

Lifelong learning

The setting for the research surrounded new legislation introduced in Germany between 1996 and 2009 that encouraged older workers to leave the labor market and enter retirement five years earlier than they would previously have done, with no subsequent changes to their retirement income.

In 2009, which was the final year of the program, there were around 320,000 workers enrolled, or roughly 8% of the population in this age group.  The researchers suggest that these workers would almost certainly have remained in the labor market without this reform, so they have little financial incentive to engage in work-related learning, nor do they have any demands from employers to do so.

They test the hypothesis by analyzing data from community learning centers from across Germany, with a particular focus on work-related courses.  The results were pretty clear cut, with the proportion of students aged between 50 and 64 rising from 10% in 1995 to nearly 30% by 2014.

Being age ready

As societies across the western world rapidly age, these biases cannot endure if our organizations are to have the talent they need to thrive.  It makes a recent paper5 from Mercer particularly salient, as they highlight the importance of being ‘age ready’.

“With labor force size, participation rate and productivity so closely tied to business and economic growth, the experienced workforce is a source of talent and competitive advantage that employers need to embrace now,” the authors say. “To be ‘age-ready’, however, requires a thoughtful and careful analysis of this workforce segment as well as a change in mindset as to how experienced workers truly add value to organizations.”

The report highlights the numerous ways experienced workers bring tremendous value to the workplace, with these virtues often sitting beyond traditional performance management metrics.  These benefits include:

  • Being lower cost due to the lower likelihood of them leaving the business
  • Their influence in helping to retail, develop and engage more junior employees
  • Their impact on group productivity via their increased knowledge sharing
  • Their ability to foster collaboration, cohesion and resiliency within the group
  • Their support for innovation and strengthening customer connections

To help organizations become ‘age ready’, the report concludes with 10 steps they can take to better capitalize on their experienced workforce.  It’s not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to get things started.

  1. Collect and analyze your age-profile data to explore demographic and skills pinch points.
  1. Develop and implement people and careers strategies that embrace the experienced workforce.
  1. Understand what impact your organization’s retirement plan design has on the trajectory of retirement readiness and labor flow.
  1. Initiate conversations with experienced employees about how they might work differently.
  1. Examine and tackle how ageism might manifest in your organization – analyzing pay, bonuses, performance, promotion and recruitment statistics through a lens focused on aging.
  1. Develop a lifelong learning attitude that positions people to embrace jobs of the future.
  1. Measure productivity levels across different age and position cohorts in your organization.
  1. Implement an effective flexible-working strategy.
  1. Develop and implement a program offering support for those who have caregiver responsibilities.
  1. Create and sustain an inclusive culture that supports and enables your experienced-worker strategy.

Article source: Older Workers Are Just As Keen On Learning As Younger Workers.

Header image source: Monroe Community College, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


  1. Senior Living (2020). 2020 Report on Age Discrimination in the Workplace.
  2. Spisak, B. R., Grabo, A. E., Arvey, R. D., & Van Vugt, M. (2014). The age of exploration and exploitation: Younger-looking leaders endorsed for change and older-looking leaders endorsed for stability. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 805-816.
  3. Azoulay, P., Jones, B. F., Kim, J. D., & Miranda, J. (2020). Age and high-growth entrepreneurship. American Economic Review: Insights, 2(1), 65-82.
  4. Ruhose, J., Thomsen, S. L., & Weilage, I. (2020). Are Older Workers Willing to Learn? IZA – Institute of Labor Economics, Discussion Paper No. 13416.
  5. Milligan, P., Guzzo, R., Nalbantian, H., Sonsino, Y. & Sung, P. (2020). Are you age-ready? Mercer.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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