Aging, Stereotypes, and Reality

I have heard for many years, informally and in scholarly journals, that ageism reigns in our society, and in particular that employers are biased against older workers. That last point is frequently made by many observers, who can cite a good bit of data showing that those over 50 who have lost jobs in the current recession have a much harder time finding new ones than younger workers.  The situation is worse the longer the unemployed person is out of the workplace. A critical ingredient in that trend is the judgment of employers, the ones who have the power to hire.

But an interesting 2010 study I belatedly ran across in one of my favorite journals, Population and Development Review throws a somewhat different light on the problem. It is a study of the perception of the productivity of older employees by employers and employees alike. The authors defined productivity in two ways, distinguishing between “soft” and “hard” skills. By soft they meant social skills, reliability, organizational loyalty, customer-oriented and social skills, and accuracy. Hard skills are those of mental capacity, creativity, flexibility, new technology skills, physical capacity, and willingness to learn.

How do employers and employees compare in their evaluations? Remarkably, young employees and older employers turned out to have the same perceptions. They agreed that the older workers had better soft skills and the younger better hard skills. They also agreed  that the “hard qualities carry much greater weight than soft qualities in the evaluation of older and younger worker alike.” While noting that in recent years weaker pension programs and recession pressures are leading older workers to stay (or try to stay) in the labor force longer  they speculate that older workers  may change because of those pressures, becoming healthier and living longer. The authors also suggest that an increase in service jobs may create more room for soft forms of productivity, but that it is also possible that rapid technological change can favor the hard skills.

They call the observations of both employers and employees “stereotypical perceptions” and conclude that “overcoming age discrimination in the workplace will be difficult because negative age-related perceptions are reinforced by workers in nonmanagerial positions.” But it is not clear to me why that would be no less true of managers (with most of the same perceptions). Then there is another question to ask: is it wrongful age discrimination when people with experience in different statuses have the same perceptions? Is it possible that  these are accurate perceptions rather than stereotypes?

What employer these days would want to hire someone like me, not skilled in using the Internet and resistant to learning? I also tire faster than young people and my mental capacities (notably memory) have declined–and I was that way 10 years ago, even if less so, when I was in my early 70s. I have, to use a sport metaphor, lost a step or two of speed in recent years.

All stereotypes are not in fact inaccurate even if we enter the caveat that neither are all older workers alike in their personal blend of hard and soft skills. Thus one could reasonably argue that older job applicants should be treated equally, one by one. But I am skeptical that, faced with a large pool of applicants and a stack of resumes for a few jobs, even a virtuous manager could not simply ignore the stereotypes, particularly if they are more or less accurate. That bias would also be more likely if the older workers cost more money for jobs that can be done by young workers, a common enough reality not mentioned in the article.

I have heard that older people don’t respond as well to training programs as young people do, but even if that is true, persistence is in order: older people should persist in trying to learn new skills and training programs should persist in teaching them.

Daniel Callahan, 82, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center. His most recent books are a memoir, In Search of the Good: A Life in Bioethics, and a collection of essays and papers, The Roots of Bioethics.

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