Peak job performance at any age: The truth about older workers

The American workforce is aging inexorably, but managers cling to outmoded myths about the job performance, trainability and attitudes of older employees.


Peak job performance at any age

The truth about older workers

The American workforce is aging inexorably, but managers cling to outmoded myths about the job performance, trainability and attitudes of older employees.

Kimberly M. Prenda and Sidney M. Stahl, PhD

Jump to:Choose article section... Debunking myths about older workers What we now know from empirical research Where do we go from here?

Some 32 million Americans are 65 and older, and that figure will double by 2030. In the same year, nearly one-third of the total U.S. population will be 55 or older, raising the median age from the current 33 years to nearly 42. This, coupled with the projected decline of those under age 18 and a meager 1 percent increase in the 19 to 55 age group, sets the stage for dramatic societal changes. Chief among them are changes in the labor force, and there is good evidence that myths and stereotypes of older people may leave employers unprepared for new realities.

Several reasons underlie the increase of older Americans in the labor force. First, Americans are becoming healthier. Surveys conducted in 1940 and 1950 found that health problems were a primary reason for retirement among men 65 and over. But by the mid-1990s, only 22 percent of men taking early Social Security options at age 62 did so for health reasons.

Financial pressures prompt older workers to postpone retirement or re-enter the labor market. For every 10 percent increase in the Social Security excempt income limit there is a 5 percent increased probability of retirees reentering the labor market. Despite a 220 percent increase in disposable income from 1960 to 1992, there are big disparities between standards of living for retirees and full-time workers. As retirees age, their chances of falling below the poverty line increase substantially. Older Americans also want more income to pay for leisure activities such as travel and hobbies.

Perhaps the most striking reason why older Americans return to work or remain longer on the job, however, has been the shift from goods- to service-producing industries, in which work is typically less physically demanding.

Despite these trends, American businesses continue to focus their training and recruitment dollars on a shrinking supply of younger workers. While the ratio of younger to older workers is now five to one, it will drop to two to one by the year 2030. In 1998, the Older Workers Survey, a report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and AARP (formerly the American Association for Retired Persons), found that less than half of all businesses surveyed provide training to upgrade older workers' skills.

Debunking myths about older workers

One major reason businesses have not embraced the retention and employment of older workers stems from myths and stereotypes unsupported by documented studies. A 1999 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) addressed some common myths about people over age 50:

  • Older workers have poorer health than younger workers, decreased physical and mental capacity and less stamina.

  • They have higher injury rates, lost time and higher insurance and medical costs.

  • They are rigid and won't learn new skills.

  • They aren't worth retraining.

AARP noted that 89 percent of survey research among managers reports higher absenteeism rates for workers older than age 50. But studies of actual attendance records find older workers are less absent for short-term sickness than their younger counterparts. Even at age 70, about a third have no medical problems causing them to miss work. Last year, a Small Business Survival Center report concluded that workers older than age 55 have better attendance records, averaging only 3.1 sick days a year, and they account for only 9.7 percent of workplace injuries. And older workers are much less likely to file workers' compensation claims.

Another study found that older workers use health care benefits less than workers with young children. While increased age is associated with increased medical problems, the health of people within an age bracket may differ widely. Other researchers have found cost savings through interventions that reduce work hazards and improve workers' overall fitness and health.

The myth regarding older worker rigidity and inability or unwillingness to learn new skills is also undocumented. For one thing, adults over age 50 constitute the fastest growing group of Internet users. For another, significantly more workers now change careers in their 40s and 50s and learn the new skills required. Older workers are reported to be just as adaptable to changes in the workplace as younger workers, and they ask more questions about proposed changes. In addition, according to the SHRM/AARP study, older workers are comfortable about being supervised by younger employees.

Another common misconception is that it is unwise to invest in retraining older workers because they won't stay on the job as long as younger workers. Research by the AARP revealed that employees in the 50 to 60 age bracket stay on the job an average of 15 years. Other studies have shown that older workers are more likely than their juniors to complete training and stay on the job after completion.

No evidence supports the stereotype that older adults are less able to learn new skills. They simply learn differently (i.e., require more practice, require increased time), and adapting programs to their learning needs does not add to the expense of training them.

Most, if not all, of the negative stereotypes surrounding older workers stem from research relying on the opinions of supervisors. Their opinions have led to mistaken assumptions about older workers' productivity. More recently, better-designed research has begun to provide a more accurate picture of the aging American workforce.

What we now know from empirical research

There is no question that cognitive functions such as memory, reasoning, attentiveness and speed of processing decline with age. There is also little argument that physical strength, flexibility and endurance decrease as well. But for essential attributes of productivity, no empirical research to date links age and job performance.

According to Peter Hjort of the University of Oslo, there are three functions to consider when examining the relationship of age to work performance: biological, psychological and social. Research shows that adults' biological capacity for strenuous physical work decreases about 1 percent per year; by age 70, exercise capacity is down 55 to 60 percent. Training can slow but not stop the aging process. Hjort points out, however, that human organs are highly functional and are not critically impaired by aging. Meanwhile, other research indicates that less than 12 percent of today's jobs require great physical strength.

As for psychological functioning, "the elderly become slower, but not more stupid," according to Hjort. "What they lose in speed, they gain in carefulness, experience and—for some—in wisdom."

In the workplace, says Hjort, the most damaging aspect of aging is societal. The elderly routinely experience ageism. Worse, many believe it is justified. Hjort contends that ageism undermines older workers' confidence and capabilities to continue as productive employees.

What about the older worker's ability to learn new skills? The evolving workplace of the 21st century demands greater flexibility in terms of transferable skills and the ability to adapt to changes in technology, especially regarding computers and information processing. Neil Charness of Florida State University, Department of Psychology, and his colleagues examined the effects of aging on learning new skills and suggested that there is evidence of physical deterioration of brain cells that support cognitive processes—including learning. But techniques such as priming and mnemonics can facilitate learning in older adults. It's not that adults can't learn—they may simply need more time and practice.

In a 1998 study examining 360 adults ages 20-75 on their ability to perform computer-based tasks, younger participants were faster but no more accurate in their output. The older adults learned the tasks successfully and were as receptive as younger adults to learning. The results indicated older adults' ability to succeed in computer-based jobs.

In another study, Charness found that although older adults took nearly twice as long as younger adults to learn new application software and asked for help more often, they learned nearly equally as well. As with the younger participants, the higher their score on the final test, the more positive their attitude was toward computers.

Although real differences are apparent in how and how fast older and younger workers learn, Charness noted that sometimes accumulated knowledge in older workers compensates for declines in cognitive efficiency. This is true, for instance, when the task requires retrieving facts instead of performing computations. Access to acquired knowledge in long-term memory can also compensate for deficits in short-term memory. "A knowledgeable older adult will outperform a computationally swift but less knowledgeable young adult," Charness argued.

Cognitive processing speed, which declines with age, is regarded as a hallmark of productivity, yet a direct association between aging and reduced productivity is unproven.

According to one 1985 study, performance impairment may result from a slower information processing rate if what is processed early on is forgotten later. Learning or performing multistep tasks may prove more difficult for older workers if they rely on short-term memory processes alone. On this basis, we might expect an age-related decline in job performance. The fact that we do not may be explained by three reasons:

  • Many productivity ratings are based on supervisors' opinions, which may be biased.

  • Age-related declines in cognition may not relate to specific tasks of older workers.

  • Veteran workers may change how they perform tasks to maintain high-performance results.

Another study compared the productivity of one group of workers performing a speed-oriented task (sewing machine operators) with a group performing a skill-oriented task (quality control examiners). The study found no age-related impact on performance for either job, but found that greater experience boosted performance for the skill-oriented task.

In a fast-paced economic environment, the speed of intellectual processing cannot be completely ignored. Employers want quick, sharp minds that produce as efficiently as possible, but speed does guarantee high-quality output. Meanwhile, intervention strategies are being studied to enhance learning speeds in older adults.

While studies presented thus far have examined issues related to productivity rates among older American workers (including learning, memory, speed of processing, intellectual capacity, absenteeism, on-the-job-injury, experience), only one has directly examined productivity records or actual task performance. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1957 examined actual output records across a range of professions and found that in the men's footwear industry, peak job performance was reached at about age 35. From then on productivity declined, although performance at age 65 was only 17 percent below the peak. Similar results were found in the furniture sales industry, but not for people working in office settings. Additionally, a 1985 study found peak performance reached in the mid- to late 30s and early 40s for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. But workers in their late 50s and early 60s often outperform workers in their 20s.

Research on the relationship between age and productivity related to computer use has also been explored. One 1994 study found that computer-assisted tasks require greater cognitive skills that have been reported to decline with age. A 1993 study reported age differences in the performance of computer tasks involving data entry, file modification and data inventory. The older adults took longer to complete all three tasks and committed more errors than younger workers, decreasing their productivity.

The researchers suggested, however, that changes in software design may be all that is required for older workers to achieve results similar to those of younger workers.

Many physical changes associated with aging can affect productivity. Those that have been investigated include decreased cardiorespiratory functioning, reduced muscle strength and sensory deterioration. A decrease in cardiorespiratory functioning often leads to increased fatigue, according to a 1995 study. This can reduce productivity in older workers, who may be relegated to more physically demanding tasks if they lack technical skills for more cognitive tasks.

Deterioration of muscular strength has been implicated in the decline in productive work performance of industrial workers who must repeatedly lift heavy objects. Muscular endurance, however, has proven more difficult to assess. A 1991 study found that 80 percent of workers on disability in Holland were older than age 50, with nearly a third of cases due to musculoskeletal disorders. It is not surprising, therefore, that as workers employed for heavy physical labor get significantly older, their productivity declines.

Although some studies now show that improved ergonomic designs in the workplace can ease problems accompanying decreased muscular strength, the most that can be offered at this time are proactive health and strength measures to delay the onset of decreased productivity.

Another common age-related loss is sensory deterioration, such as vision, hearing and balance. The changes often progress subtly, countered by compensatory mechanisms that offset productivity declines until the very last stages of life. A 1988 study found that bus drivers who were 60-64 years old had better safety records and fewer accidents per year than any other age group.

Much overlooked and little understood is the impact of social changes related to aging, such as becoming a caregiver to a spouse or parent while employed. According to a 1989 study, the proportion of older people who act as providers and/or caregivers for disabled family members increases after age 45, affecting 20 percent of the population by age 75. It is often cited as a major reason for retirement or decreased hours worked per year, especially for older women. Familial caregiving responsibilities place a heavy burden of stress on the caregiver. Research has also found that chronic stress can reduce productivity on the job, requiring more days off, late arrivals, early departures and increased absenteeism.

Based on the research findings presented above, and on many others, there is a consensus on four factors associated with work productivity and aging.

1. Knowledge: Factual procedural knowledge relevant to the performance of one's job appears to remain stable with age.

2. Skills: Physical or cognitive procedures acquired through experience are relevant to the performance of specific jobs and not adequately measured within standard laboratory assessments.

3. Abilities: General physical or cognitive abilities that set limits on the acquisition of knowledge or skills are relevant to functioning in novel situations.

4. Other: Miscellaneous factors affect job performance such as motivation, loyalty and morale.

Research clearly indicates that with age only some abilities tend to decline and the job performance of older workers can remain stable despite deterioration in general physical and/or cognitive abilities.

Where do we go from here?

While most empirical research finds no significant association between age and job performance, older workers do require training and proactive general and physical health interventions to maintain maximum productivity. Replacing negative age-biased stereotypes with factual knowledge derived from empirical research from the fields of physical health, psychology and sociology have led to some effective suggestions and strategies aimed at recruiting and maintaining valuable, experienced and loyal older workers. As baby boomers gray and a "baby bust" sets in on the other end of the age spectrum, older employees will become increasingly more valuable and irreplaceable to industrialized nations. According to a year 2000 study, some tips for training older workers include:

  • Provide brighter, more diffused lighting and reduce glare by using matte surfaces, both of which have been shown to be effective at speeding up tasks among workers over the age of 40;

  • Use lower sound frequencies, in the range of the spoken voice, which are more easily heard by older people;

  • Emphasize efficient work practices aimed at conserving energy;

  • Encourage all workers to exercise and avoid sudden bursts of physical work that sap energy;

  • Encourage older workers to focus on what they can do as opposed to what they can't do.

Another study has identified situational, dispositional and institutional barriers to training older workers that must be addressed. Situational barriers include lack of information and money. For instance, older workers may not know of community-based training for jobs. And when training is available on site, managers who harbor negative stereotypes about older workers may fail to inform them of the opportunity. Paid time off for training and tuition reimbursement can go a long way toward encouraging older workers to take advantage of these opportunities.

Dispositional barriers are based in self-perceptions. In many cases, older workers not only believe negative stereotypes about their age but feel that the discrimination experienced as a result of those stereotypes is justified. Managers should actively encourage older workers to adopt a more positive self-perception to increase self-esteem and promote a positive attitude toward work.

Institutional barriers include the use of logistically difficult policies and procedures for activities such as registration, gaining access to sites or scheduling. Other institutional barriers include the failure to provide incentives for older workers to acquire new skills. Such barriers may encourage older workers to retire.

One way to increase retention of older workers is to offer more flexibility in total hours worked. A 1993 study found that 24 percent of respondents to a health and retirement survey had the flexibility to work fewer hours at their current job. Nearly 14 percent wanted to decrease their hours but could not, and this group was more likely to retire at either age 62 or 65. According to another study, flexibility in hours required at work will become increasingly important to retaining older, more experienced workers.

Likewise, allowing a more gradual transition into retirement will become more important, other studies indicate. The more control workers feel they have regarding retirement decisions, the more likely they are to be satisfied and productive in their work.

The state of current research investigating productivity among older workers suggests that given the right environment and management styles, older workers can be just as productive and valuable as younger workers—perhaps even more so. Retention of older workers needs to be a focus of company management as baby boomers move into traditional retirement age. Their retention will most likely be crucial in maintaining a competitive edge in the workplace in the current and coming decades.

Kimberly Prenda is a social science analyst at the National Institute on Aging. Sidney Stahl is chief of the Health and Social Institutions and the Behavioral Medicine and Interventions sections of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the NIA.


Kimberly Prenda, Sidney Stahl. Peak job performance at any age: The truth about older workers. Business and Health 2001;5:30.