Beyond Ageism: Discovering Untapped Potential

During the early 1800s, brine wells were dug to produce needed salt. Sometimes these wells also produced some oil, an unwanted byproduct.  Imagine sitting on such a valuable resource and not recognizing the potential of what you had.

Viewing Older Workers through the Lens of Ageism

Research suggests that some employers view older workers as though they were unwanted byproducts when running a business. To a degree, it is certainly understandable that employers don’t always recognize the value that older workers can bring to the workplace. Certainly, older workers often look and think a bit differently. And of course, some employees may feel uncomfortable working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from them. Also, managers may feel uncomfortable supervising older workers. I get that. Older workers are a bit different. However, most older workers certainly do not fit the ageist stereotypes that are prevalent in many workplaces. Instead, older workers often represent untapped potential in the workplace.

Beyond Ageism: Untapped Potential

One reported fear about hiring older workers is that they could block advancement opportunities for younger workers. This fear is generally unsupported. Older workers usually have different motivations than younger workers. Typically, many older workers are less interested in advancement than engaging in work that is meaningful in some way.

It is true that older workers tend to process information more slowly. At the same time, studies suggest older workers may be able to compensate with increased accuracy. Speed without accuracy can be costly in any business. Older employees can draw on crystallized intelligence – intelligence that involves using knowledge that is well-practiced and familiar.

Communication Advantages

One of the common stereotypes about older people is that we’re not interested in technology. Yet the majority of us have smartphones and use social media. However, we tend to use these tools differently. Partly because of our work ethic, we are not as likely to be spending our work hours using social media for personal use during business hours. Yet the average worker may be spending as much as 42 minutes each day during work hours on social media. Want to guess which age group is least likely to be posting selfies during work hours?

Another assumption about older workers is that they are ‘out of touch.’  Part of this belief may come from the fact that each generation tends to view communication differently. Baby Boomers, for example, grew up valuing face-to-face communication. This doesn’t mean we don’t text or use other forms of mediated communication. What this does mean is that older workers are more likely to have honed their communication skills such as listening, dealing with conflict, reading emotions, and co-operating with others. When working with customers or dealing with conflicts, your older workers may offer value-added insights.

Creative Abilities and Team Work

When working in teams, older workers are often good at perspective-taking and coming up with creative solutions to problems. When I used to facilitate teams and later when I taught group dynamics to college students, I made sure everyone had an opportunity to share insights. I might ask questions like, “Does anyone see problems with the solution we are proposing? Are there other potential solutions we haven’t considered?” What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of what we’re proposing?” If some people didn’t have a chance to contribute, I would say something like, “Carol, you haven’t had a chance to weigh in yet. What are your thoughts?”

Sometimes it is necessary to purposefully include older workers in discussions; the benefits can be worth far more than the effort it takes to ask for input.

The Future Is Now

The U.S. population is trending older. Within less than 30 years, the number of people in the U.S. over 65 is expected to double. Out of necessity, employers will need to start recognizing and adapting to the strengths that older workers offer. By recognizing the potential of older workers today, your organization will be better prepared for a new reality in the future.

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