Older, But Wiser

Workforce projections forecast that within the next seven years 50 percent of the US workforce will be 45 or older. Organizational decision makers, faced with adapting to aging workers, are exploring the question of “how to maintain, retrain, and motivate older workers in a job market that is becoming increasingly polarized with simultaneous increases in the number of high complexity jobs (lawyer, nurse, professor) and low complexity jobs (service, retail), and a marked decrease in the number of moderate complexity jobs (manufacturing).”

Implications of the aging workforce were explored during a symposium chaired by APS Fellow and Charter Member Ruth Kanfer, Georgia Institute of Technology, at the APS Annual Convention in Atlanta. The symposium, “Aging, Adult Development, and Work,” included presentations by APS Fellow and Charter Member Phillip Ackerman, Georgia Institute of Technology, and APS Fellow Dean Simonton, University of California, Davis.

Ackerman presented empirical findings clarifying the nature of age-related changes in cognitive functioning. He said the that a distinction should be made between fluid intelligence, which manifests as an individual’s abstract reasoning skills and memory, and crystallized intelligence, which manifests as an individual’s accumulated knowledge such as vocabulary.

Fluid intelligence, as measured by traditional intelligence tests purported to measure “g,” does in fact appear to decline with age, while crystallized intelligence actually appears to increase with age. This increase in crystallized intelligence is accompanied, or perhaps evidenced, by increases in both job related and non-job related knowledge. Focusing solely on the age-related decline in fluid intelligence, as measured by traditional general mental ability tests, may lead to the under prediction of older workers’ performance by neglecting to take into account the relationship between job knowledge and performance.

In fact, when age related increases in crystallized intelligence and job knowledge are taken into account, older workers may prove to be superior performers. The lifetime of acquired experience may put the older employee at a distinct advantage over a “sharper” young employee. While the latter may be better suited for analyzing organizational problems, the former is likely to possess prior experience with similar problems, and therefore be able to offer solutions without having to invoke abilities related to fluid intelligence.

Kanfer discussed the implications of the aging workforce from a motivational standpoint. In addition to the concomitant decrease in fluid intelligence and increase in crystallized intelligence, the goals, motives, and personalities of older workers tend to evolve as well. Performance-related personality traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to increase, while achievement orientation often gives way to internal motives such as worker’s age. These developmental changes may clarify the nature of observed performance decrements in older workers as being due to a change in person-job “fit” rather than a fundamental change in motivational processes. Organizational decision makers can maximize the potential of older workers by changing job tasks from those requiring high levels of fluid intelligence, such as an air traffic controller, to those requiring high levels of crystallized intelligence, such as the supervisor of air traffic controllers.

According to Kanfer, organizations that capitalize on older workers’ strengths, including acquired job knowledge, crystallized intelligence, resource risk aversion, will be at a distinct advantage over organizations that rigidly adhere to selection systems, job tasks, compensation systems, and training programs aimed at a younger workforce.

Much of the prior research has employed methodologies that focus on performance at the aggregate level at which there is a clear age-related performance decrement. However, when performance is examined at the individual level, the link between age and creative productivity is less clear. Since a minority of individuals produce the majority of creative contributions in any given field, aggregating across individuals in a particular age bracket may make artifactual decrements in performance evident. Ultimately, creative productivity seems to be predicated on differences between individuals, more so than the age of a particular individual.

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