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The High Costs To Employers When Older Workers Internalize Ageist Attitudes

November 8, 2019

One day in a Paris café a woman approached Pablo Picasso and requested that he sketch her and in turn, she would pay him a reasonable fee.

To the woman’s surprise, Picasso completed the sketch within minutes and in exchange requested 500,000 francs.

“But it only took you a few minutes,” the woman exclaimed, to which Picasso replied, “No, it took me about forty years”.

When employers push older employees out the door to bring in new, fresh blood that is much cheaper to employ, they fail to recognize that these employees take their expertise and knowledge with them. 

As the Picasso example illustrates it can be costly to discount the importance of experience.

The other issue that employers often overlook when they retire older workers, is that it takes time for new employees to get up to speed and work at the same level of proficiency as their predecessors. 

Perhaps organizations fail to acknowledge the value of experience because they have bought into some deeply ingrained cultural myths about mature employees that are just that – myths. The stereotypical beliefs that older workers are slower, poorer performers, and take many sick days, are all inaccurate assumptions that lead to ageist attitudes and discriminatory practices. 

One of the most detrimental of these stereotypes is the belief that mature workers lack the motivation to advance in their careers, which creates little, if any, incentive for organizations to offer their older workforce development opportunities, promotions, challenging assignments or training initiatives.

While such organizational practices are no doubt unsettling, what is of greater concern is the possibility that older workers come to internalize these stereotypical beliefs as true, and start to think of themselves as old and incapable of learning new skills. This causes what author Peter Senge refers to as a “loop”: If organizations believe that their development dollars are better spent on younger workers assumed to have greater potential, then mature employees will not be given the occasion to develop their skills and advance professionally. While this not only obstructs the career advancement of mature workers, it also extinguishes their very motivation for achievement in the first place and serves to validate and reinforce Senge’s “loop”.

In other words, one way that stereotypes influence behaviour is through a self-fulfilling prophecy, which in this case, drives people to exit the workforce and retire as a way to cope with stigma-related stress. 

While for some the discomfort may disappear once they leave their jobs, for others the feeling of being devalued and unappreciated may not, which unfortunately sets the stage for future activities. Thus, if older people have to work for financial purposes or want to continue working to stay cognitively engaged, active, and connected, they may opt for jobs that underutilize their competencies, pay less, and are not as satisfying as their previous careers. 

The High Costs of Stereotypical Thinking

Old mindsets are difficult to change, and they are costly for everyone. 

If mature employees work in an environment that either explicitly or implicitly labels them as “old,” limits their opportunities for professional development, or regards their experience as irrelevant, then they will very likely devalue their own work and come to believe they have little valuable knowledge to impart. And when people start to lose confidence in their own abilities and their knowledge, they won’t engage in knowledge sharing activities. As discussed in a previous post, knowledge sharing is instrumental to innovation and a firm’s competitive advantage.

The other challenge for organizations is that when older workers feel that their organizational culture views them negatively, they psychologically disengage from work, don’t partake in new initiatives, and bide their time until retirement. The closer retirement gets, the less motivated these workers are to invest in work activities. Instead, they disconnect from the current phase of their lives in anticipation of what’s to come next. According to the latest Gallup report, disengagement leads to big losses, with disengaged workers being 37% more likely to have higher rates of absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. 

In dollars and cents that translates into a cost of 34% of an employee’s annual salary.

The good news is that disengagement can be reversed. Opportunities for upward mobility increase employee engagement, as do challenging work assignments in which an employee feels that she is making a meaningful contribution to the organization.

Longer lives translate into longer careers which means we need to start rethinking our corporate policies around age and retirement.

Rewire to Retire is a column dedicated to Dr. Gillian Leithman, who is best known for her pre-retirement programs which help people focus on the socio-emotional aspects of the retirement transition. When she is not facilitating workshops, Gillian teaches at the Goodman Institute of Investment Management and the Executive MBA at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the forthcoming author of The Corporate G-spot. She can be reached at gill@rewiretoretire.com or visit her website at www.rewiretoretire.com

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