The Psychology of Ageing

This article aims to open eyes to the psychology of ageing and to inspire possibility.
The Psychology of Ageing
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Age changes us. What we think and feel adapts and evolves with time. Understanding some of the more fundamental changes we go through is important if we are to manage the needs of a multigenerational workforce or realise the gains from an ageing population. This article aims to open eyes to the psychology of ageing and to inspire possibility.

Drivers and motivations are shaped by what we care about and value. Psychologist Shalom Schwartz has spent most of his career researching and identifying the core values underlying human behaviour. His model is based on studies of over 60,000 people across 64 countries. Importantly, his findings have been widely replicated. When we are young, (and have nothing – or very little) our values focus more on drivers of self ‘enhancement’:  power; achievement; stimulation; hedonism – (Defining each is beyond the scope of this article but these largely translate to social status, money, success, freedom, building a family, excitement). With age, our values shift and become more focused on drivers of self ‘transcendence’: universalism; tradition; conformity and benevolence. We care more about preserving what we’ve acquired and laying the foundation for those that follow by focusing more on others' welfare, peace, social justice, respect for tradition and culture and the prevention of social norm violations.

More on the Forum Network: Support Workers of All Ages with Reskilling, Upskilling, Reorganising, and Mentoring by Writer and Editor, Harvard Business Review

With more than 20% of workers remaining in their roles well past retirement age, how can companies offer upward growth to those who are in the middle (or even at the beginning) of their careers while ensuring that older workers aren’t forced out of theirs?

Why does this happen?  Psychologist Laura Carstersen from the Stanford Longevity Centre provides a helpful explanation. Her studies show humans sense and feel the passing of time. As our time horizon gets shorter, we focus more on ‘what matters’. Particularly compelling is the evidence that this isn’t just a phenomenon that happens with age – people with terminal illness for example will experience a similar shift in changing values. 

One of the consequences of spending more time on the things that ‘matter’ is people get happier as they get older.  I am reminded by the famous quote from Pret a Manger comms lead Jay Chapman: “We hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches”. The reality is more complex, but the basic premise that happy people will offer customers and colleagues a better work experience is hard to deny.  An additional factor accounting for our increased happiness is increased resilience. Higher levels of resilience are reported among older adults. The young escape the tragedies of life that age delivers. As we age, we learn more about death, we’ve been ‘performance managed’, (some might have been fired); had our hearts broken; been abused and made mistakes. As people experience and live through trauma, most recognise they’ve ‘survived’. Knowing and understanding we can live through some of the worst things that can happen offers reassurance – painful and hard-earned it may be. 

82% had not considered age as part of their diversity and inclusion strategy and looking forward, only 13% of organisations said they would look at this in the next 5 years.

Given the propensity to critique the older worker for their lack of mental agility, let’s share insight on that score. With age, we witness a drop in performance on ‘fluid’ intelligence tests (tests which assess specific areas of cognitive ability within a time-based constraint).  However, is fluid intelligence the ability all jobs need?  Researchers at MIT in 2015 demonstrated some skills such as social awareness peaks from 45 onwards.  Verbal knowledge peaks in our 60’s. Surely the intelligence we’re after is the one which is relevant for the job? The evidence bears this out. Fluid intelligence has a weaker relationship with job performance than ‘crystallised’ intelligence - the knowledge we acquire through insight, training and experience which is specific to the role. This makes sense – if we take the medical world as an example, fluid intelligence shows only a weak relationship with job performance, whereas crystallised intelligence is “the strongest predictor of vocational knowledge on every predictor”. 

Imagine the value of a workforce with the following evidence-based traits:

  • Driven more to make a difference, to help others, to be part of a team;
  • Where money is no longer the driver it once was;
  • Happier;
  • More resilient;
  • Intelligence in domains which have a stronger relationship to the requirements of stronger job performance.

Now ask yourself: have we prepared a job or workforce based on this opportunity? The implications for organisations are significant but we’re far from embracing age yet. In the UK in 2022, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development surveyed more than 2000 organisations. 82% had not considered age as part of their diversity and inclusion strategy and looking forward, only 13% of organisations said they would look at this in the next 5 years.

Our lack of experience in discussing age means our ability to manage a multigenerational workforce will be compromised but worse than that, our ability to reap the huge rewards the value of an ageing population brings means the gains we could win from ageing are not being realized. Until we start getting braver and bolder and experimenting and sharing what works, the space remains open to exploitation and potential ‘age washing’. Do not look to your peers to consider what works. The blueprint is not clear because organisations are only at the starting point. You have the chance to lead. Take it.

To learn more, read the OECD report: The Midcareer Opportunity

The world of work is getting older in advanced and an increasing number of emerging economies. Two powerful and persistent trends, longer lifespans and lower birth rates, all but guarantee that midcareer and older workers will make up an even larger portion of the future workforce, with profound implications for our economies, businesses and workers. Are societies adapting quickly enough to cope with ageing at an unprecedented scale?

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