Understanding older generations at the workplace

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Mandatory retirement has been illegal in most industries for decades, but some managers are still reluctant to hire and retain workers older than 65.

Frequently, workers in this age group are characterized as inflexible, slower and reluctant to evolve with technology. But most employers find that today’s older workers challenge these stereotypes and can be real assets.

Biological and psychological changes occur as we get older. Each generation also is different sociologically from other age groups.

Awareness of age-related differences can empower employers to capitalize on senior workers’ positive attributes and consider making workplace adaptations for their limitations.

While most stereotypes about older adults are greatly exaggerated, many biological changes do take place both physically and cognitively. Nearly every organ and system in the body is a bit less efficient than it once was, but this does not mean there is disease or disability.

The stereotype that seniors can’t hear or see well is false, but it is true that hearing and vision are not quite as sharp as they once were when younger.

While Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not part of the normal aging process, these are: tip of the tongue moments and slower reflex, reaction and recall times.

Psychologist Erik Erikson believed that older adults experience a crossroads in their life: a stage he called “ego integrity vs. despair.”

When a senior reviews his life thus far, and finds meaning in the way he has spent his time, this leads to wisdom and acceptance of his mortality or “ego integrity.”

A senior experiencing ego integrity has the potential to be a highly influential mentor in the workplace.

Generationally, workers older than 65 are known for a strong work ethic. Even if there is not a significant financial incentive, they were raised in an era that idealized hard work.

They are team-oriented and unlikely to leave coworkers in a bind. This age group likely has finished raising its families so it can be open to working more hours when necessary.

This age group is known for honoring commitments and respecting authority.

Sociologically, older workers are generally highly dedicated employees. Many seniors, particularly older women, are motivated by financial need. There are numerous advantages to deferring Social Security payments so many seniors want to put off collecting for as long as possible.

Most older adults also have witnessed steep declines in their retirement accounts so there is a genuine need to supplement their income. Others simply did not adequately plan for retirement, so they require additional income from a full- or part-time job.

This age group also is typically good at interpersonal communication. Having worked for most of their careers without access to email and texting, these workers have had to rely on their people skills to get things accomplished.

They also tend to be more resourceful than younger generations who have come to rely only on the Internet for research and problem-solving.

The best strategy in managing and accommodating older workers is the same as with employees of any age: observe, note strengths and weaknesses and try to work with that person as an individual.

Nearly every employee requires some accommodations in order to do the best job possible. For example, a manager may have to spend time with the younger, new college graduate explaining to him if and when it is appropriate to text customers. The same concept is true with older workers.

Because of changes in eyesight and hearing, consider how older workers’ seats at a meeting table can make a big difference in how well they are able to participate.

Recognizing normal changes that happen to the aging brain can help managers expect that some older workers may be quiet during that meeting but are submitting great ideas a few hours later, after they’ve had time to process.

Since this age group may have less computer experience than their younger coworkers, it is important to assess and respond to needs for training. Older workers sometimes are thought to be technologically challenged but often it is because they have not had proper training.

It is also important to re-evaluate a worker’s duties if he ages during employment with an organization. For example, a 70-year-old hotel shuttle driver who has been with a company for 20 years may be better suited to a front desk assignment if age-related changes are interfering with driving abilities.

Older workers have much to offer: experience, work ethic, potential to mentor and frequently fewer family obligations that will interfere with work. The key to maximizing value with older employees is recognizing and accommodating their differences.

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