Are older employees slower and less competent? Should we see old age as a murky, grey future? Susanne Scheibe wants nothing to do with these stereotypes. ‘My field shows that these negative ideas are completely unfounded. Being older has lots of advantages.’
Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis
The research being carried out by Scheibe, Associate Professor of Lifespan Development and Organizational Behaviour, shows that older employees are more able to cope with stress, emotionally more stable and experience better wellbeing than their younger counterparts. Scheibe: ‘This translates into greater job satisfaction and a better balance between work and private life. It’s the “wellbeing paradox of ageing”. But it’s important not to make generalizations about older or younger employees. I hope that my research will generate some practical tips for creating an optimum working environment for all generations.’
When is someone old? Scheibe: ‘Anti-ageism (opposition to age discrimination) is a hot topic in the USA. An age limit of 40 isn’t unusual there. But the boundary is shifting, and people are becoming more aware of “subjective age”, i.e. the age that you feel. Western populations are staying healthy and on the ball for longer than they used to. Gaining qualifications is tending to take longer and we are retiring later, because we are living longer. An ageing population means that the proportion of senior citizens in society increases year by year. People who we used to refer to as “old” are now termed “middle-aged”. Nonetheless, age is still an important factor in how people categorize themselves and form groups. In fact, it is sometimes more important than factors such as social class, religion, gender or ethnic background. People’s chances of finding a job depend largely on their age.’
Scheibe studied both the strengths and the weaknesses of older employees. She found three distinct assets that older employees bring to the workplace. First, they are mentally more resilient than their younger colleagues. They are more able to cope with stress, less fazed by setbacks and able to focus better in the face of adversity. Secondly, they have more knowledge and experience and are able to assess matters from different angles. Thirdly, they are generally happy to serve society and have a pro-social orientation. They invest more in relationships in the workplace than young people, who tend to live in a transient world where everything comes and goes.
On the other hand, employers also see disadvantages to employing older people. First, the capacity to learn diminishes with age. Older people do not absorb new knowledge and learn new skills as swiftly or easily as their younger colleagues do. Secondly, they are physically less resilient. Although they are less inclined to take sick leave than their younger counterparts in general, when they do take sick leave, they are absent for longer. Finally, the digital competence of older employees is often a problem. Many young people were born into, or have at least grown up in, a digital world and can be termed ‘digital natives’. Older people are ‘emigrants’ in the virtual world and rarely achieve the same technological prowess as younger people.
Scheibe identifies an important point about employing older people. ‘People are never “finished”. They are never “fully developed”. Over the course of time, successive personal events and experiences make people more heterogeneous and unique. The result is a set of characteristics and features that are exclusive to that person. On the one hand, this means that you have to be careful about how you deploy an older person, but on the other hand, it means that the person has developed a special combination of characteristics and skills, which nobody else has.’
Which type of jobs are better suited to older people? Scheibe: ‘Something we refer to as emotional job demands are important. Take police officers, for example. They have to deal with a lot of negative emotions. Crime scenes, aggression and problems of a serious nature all make the work more interesting at first, but in the long run, people have to be able to protect themselves by maintaining a mental distance from these unpleasant situations. This has a negative impact on job satisfaction. The younger generation is more used to a hectic work environment, such as a call centres or the hospitality industry. Young people are more tolerant and make fewer demands, whereas good social interaction at work, like working together in a team, is important to older employees.’
Scheibe is keen to stress the importance of age diversity in teams, which allows younger and older employees to learn from each other. This is an advantage when tackling complex problems, for example, whereby each group can put forward solutions from their own perspective. She also makes a few recommendations: ‘Talk to each other. If you’re young, talk to your older colleagues. Consider the advantages of being older and prepare yourself. Remember that one day, you too will be an older employee. Your ideas about getting older affect your own personal development. If you think that older employees have nothing to offer, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This applies to older employees too. Try to avoid rigid ideas about people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, because they may become engrained and ultimately affect your own behaviour. Remember that the situation in the future might be very different from now.’
Has Scheibe been able to put the findings of her academic research into practice in her own life? ‘Ha-ha, partly. My life is pretty hectic at the moment, juggling a busy academic career with a family. The life career perspective has helped me enormously. When the children were still young and I felt swamped, I used to tell myself that this was just a phase. Five years in a whole lifetime that might last for ninety years if the statistics are right. That’s a mere 5.55%...’
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