HR Forum

Growing older, working strong: Part 1 - It pays to hire older employees

The 2010 Singapore population census revealed that 37% of the resident population was aged 45 years or older. This was 10% more than 12 years ago. As time goes on, companies will have to hire more older people.

This trend will continue in the coming years. There will be fewer younger employees as the Government will moderate the inflow of foreign labour.

There seems to be a general perception that older persons are unable to work as effectively as younger persons.

This is not true. This article will explain why and propose strategies to manage older employees for maximum effectiveness.

Functional age

A new term called “functional age” refers to the ability of a person to perform a job.

People do not age at the same rate.

A person with a chronological age of 60 may have a psychological age (such as memory and intelligence) of 40 and a biological age of 50, while another person could be 70 for both.

Since there is a wide variation among older persons, chronological age is a very imprecise measure of job performance capabilities.

In managing older employees, the most important factor is their functional age, which can only be determined by direct observation of a person’s performance on the job.

Job performance

A study done by the United States Department of Labor on clerical workers showed evidence that consistency of output tended to increase with age.

Older workers performed better than younger workers, had a steadier rate of output and were as accurate. Differences in output were insignificant.

Older employees were found to have lower work-related injuries and illness rates, as they had developed their own coping strategies and exercised greater caution.

They also had lower rates of absenteeism than younger employees.

Research by AARP, the largest seniors advocacy group based in the US, found that staff turnover among employees over the age of 50 was 10 times lower than those under 30.

This results in more consistent service, lower costs and increased profits.

Despite declines in perception and reaction speeds under laboratory conditions, studies of employed older persons under actual working conditions generally show that they perform as well as, if not better, than younger persons on most measures.

Compensatory mechanisms

Studies showed that fluid intelligence, that is, performance of new, speeded “multi-tasks” and perceptual-motor abilities may begin to diminish by age 50 to 60.

However, older persons utilise compensatory mechanisms to “compensate” for these losses.

Research has shown that older adults can learn as effectively as younger adults. They have the experience and soft skills to ensure that they apply knowledge appropriately.

In today’s knowledge-based economy, content-based knowledge has a short shelf life.

Moreover, technology enables people to tap information readily.

Older persons possess what is known as crystallised intelligence, such as vocabulary, general cultural knowledge and the ability to engage in practical and social reasoning (comprehension). These attributes may actually improve with age.

Divergent thinking, associated with creativity and originality, does not necessarily diminish with age.

Indeed, celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright was still creative at 90, Thomas Edison continued to invent at 92, and George Bernard Shaw was still writing plays at 90!

How to mine ‘silver talent’

Recent local and overseas surveys have consistently revealed that flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and part-time work are key factors in retaining and recruiting older adults.

Recent research findings by Employer Alliance showed that FWAs have enabled organisations such as Alexandra Health, Sheraton Towers and SingPost to retain the institutional knowledge and specialised skills of older employees.

In many cases, older employees form a valuable resource pool for companies to cope with situations that require flexible scheduling such as handling daily peak periods at food and beverage outlets or seasonal workloads in administrative functions.

The surveys also found that older persons desire to mentor younger persons. Companies could provide more of such opportunities.

Singapore is ageing rapidly. Research has shown that older adults can perform as well as younger persons at work.

Bookstore conglomerate Borders Group in the US found that stores mirroring their customer base were the most successful.

To achieve win-win outcomes, companies must look beyond chronological age by optimising the attributes of their older employees. - Singapore Straits Times/Asia News Network

Article by Helen Ko, gerontological specialist and executive director of Beyond Age, which provides consulting services and a suite of learning programmes for managers and older persons on effective management, communication, counselling and coaching. Article extracted from Star Classifieds.