Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob
You can't expect too much from older employees. Young ones are faster, more creative, and more intelligent. At least, that is the widespread idea. And with an ageing population and a retirement age that is constantly being pushed back, employers are the ones who will be left with the mess.
“It is ridiculous to think that older people are less productive,” says Raymond Montizaan, project leader at ROA (Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market). He picks up an experiment by German researchers Axel Börsch-Supan and Matthias Weiss, who studied the relationship between factory workers age and their productivity. Over a period of three years, the researchers analysed the doings of four thousand employees in a German Mercedes factory, divided up over a hundred teams (in the car factory, a team constitutes one link within the whole production process). When a car rolled off the line, the company inspectors gave their judgement and filtered out any mistakes.
Montizaan: “What appeared? There was no difference in productivity between people of 25 or 65. But the older ones did make more mistakes than the younger ones. However, they made minor mistakes that were pretty easily rectified and at little cost. Contrary to the younger generation, who made fewer but much worse mistakes with considerable consequences. Sometimes they were so bad that the whole car had to be written off.” It was the older ones who were able to fix a problem quickly because of their years of experience working in stressful situations.
Before we continue: what is old, what is young? Montizaan: “There is no definition for this. In my research, I take 45 years as a starting point, the age when many look at their retirement papers for the first time, the moment when this awareness starts. On the other hand, old or young also depends greatly on your profession. Top athletes are old at 36. Formally, retirement age is 65, rising to 67 in the future. With the abolishing of early retirement and pre-pension schemes, the age of retirement has risen over the past ten years. So, we need to work longer, it is something we cannot avoid if we want to keep our old-age pension scheme affordable. At the same time, life expectancy has gone up too.”
As far as measuring productivity is concerned, says Montizaan: “That is difficult. Take science, for example. Should we look at the number of publications that professors have produced? They have hardly any time left for that, have they? The higher up on the academic ladder one gets, the more management tasks one is given. Add to this the teaching responsibilities and the supervision of PhD students and you understand that the number of publications provides a limited impression of one’s production.”
“What we see - and that is also clear in the Mercedes experiment - is that intelligence has two forms: there is fluid and crystallized intelligence. The first concerns abstract thinking, reasoning, problem-solving abilities, and identifying patterns. This deteriorates after the age of thirty. But then we have crystallized intelligence, the capacity to use everything that you have learned in life – let's say ‘experience’. This enables in particular older people to compensate a lot. It is a form of intelligence that starts in youth, but continues to increase up to retirement. After that, a decline sets in, because he or she is no longer working on a daily basis and so gains no more experience. This applies in particular to complex jobs in which people used their brain.”
So, as long as a job has a healthy amount of stress and challenges every now and again, productivity will be fine? “Companies who invest in sustainable employability and who motivate their older employees, for example by offering them courses, will be rewarded with more satisfied people.”
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