Overcoming Age Stereotypes: Older Workers + Younger Workers = Better Decisions


Neurological research has helped us better understand some of the developmental and age related changes in cognitive functioning and performance, including risk tolerance (see Complexity, Age and Performance).  We have proposed that these findings provide additional support for the need to have older and younger workers learn to work together so as to capitalize on their age-related strengths, i.e., older workers + younger workers = better decisions.  The problem is that there are also very strong age related stereotypes that inhibit the effectiveness of this suggestion.  Therefore, we need to understand the role that stereotypes play in the interactions of various age groups in the workplace so that we can create environments where negative stereotypes are minimized or overcome. Stop for a moment and describe the characteristics of people who are 20 years of age, 40 years of age, 60 years of age, and 75 years of age.  If you are honest with yourself, you will have some overlap in your descriptors, but you will also have differences and if you are also honest you will find that there are more negative characteristics identified for age groups to which you do not currently belong.  If you think about it you will also most likely find that your descriptions don’t necessarily accurately describe every person that you know within each of those age groups.  We all function with age related stereotypes but we also know that there are individual differences.  The problem is that until we know a given individual, our stereotypes tend to guide our perceptions and expectations of that person.  In fact, when our expectations are strong, we will overlook invalidating evidence of our stereotypes and foster what is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP)” through our actions toward the other person.  In other words, our stereotypes will tend to override our search for individual differences, or exceptions, and simultaneously help create the behavior that we expected in the other person.  For example, research has demonstrated that performance is improved when it follows an interaction driven by a positive stereotype but decreased when it follows an interaction driven by a negative stereotype (e.g., Hausdorff, et al, 1999).  Likewise, the behavior resulting from the interaction will strengthen our stereotype and if that behavior is perceived negatively, e.g., inflexible, know-it-all, etc., we will likely become less willing to work with or listen to the other person and this makes our objective of “better decisions” more difficult to attain.

So how do we overcome the negative impact of our stereotypes?

We have been helping supervisors and managers deal with the impact of their negative stereotypes for the past 30+ years and the process, while simple requires understanding and effort.  First, we help them evaluate and understand their stereotypes, especially their negative stereotypes and the role that they personally play in creating SFP’s.  Second, we help them think about specific individuals with whom they interact and then have them honestly evaluate the role of negative stereotyping on both their expectations of the person and the impact of their interaction on the behavior of the person.  In other words, we help them understand that because everyone is different we need to look for those individual differences rather that viewing everyone of a certain age as the same.  Third, we have them evaluate the positive aspects of these individuals, especially those characteristics that can be beneficial to other team members and the organization.  Finally, we have them commit to a regular review of their stereotypes and evaluation of how those stereotypes are impacting their relationships.  Our objective is to improve interactions and relationships by minimizing the impact of negative age related stereotypes.  If we are going to create “better decisions” through the interaction of older and younger workers we will first need to positively impact stereotypes that are currently leading to reduced respect and willingness to listen, learn and depend on each other.