With Age Comes Ability
Experience also helps older workers compensate for the physical and mental changes that accompany aging. Younger workers enjoy a reputation as adept task-switchers who can better juggle the technological distractions of the modern office.
But according to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, M.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, "multitasking" is a misnomer. The brain can't actually do two things at once, he says. Instead, it switches from one task to the other, and with every switch there's a slight delay, or "cost." And the cost increases as we age.
Gazzaley's research, however, shows that this cognitive decline starts in the early 20s, and physical exercise can slow or even halt the decline. Given the wide variations between people, he says, a smart, active 75-year-old could score higher on cognitive tests than a 40-year-old slouch on the couch.
And an experienced worker can easily steer around this "sea of distractions" by closing the office door and turning off email. (Always-on younger colleagues could be less likely to embrace the idea of unplugging.)
That may explain why older workers might score low on cognitive tests in laboratories but show no drop-off in their job performance or rate of workplace accidents. "It comes with experience," says Wharton's Cappelli. "More experienced workers are more careful."
Bottom line: The human brain is adaptable, and we can learn skills throughout our lives if given the opportunity.
A case in point is Rosa Gibson, 66, of San Diego. She lost her job managing a retail clothing store when it closed in 2005. "Once I got over the shock," she says, "I decided to try something different."
Gibson started volunteering with Scripps Health, a nonprofit health care system in Southern California; there she used her bilingual skills in community outreach. Several years and many classes later, she's now earning a bachelor's degree in public health and working as a clinical trials assistant.
"I may be 80 by the time I get my degree at the rate I'm going, but that's OK," she says. "Everybody out there has something to teach you."
What about creativity and innovation, often cited as key strengths of younger employees? While it's true that young minds may produce a higher volume of ideas, business guru Frans Johansson argues in his book The Medici Effect that creativity comes more from making connections among diverse thoughts: The more knowledge you have, the more connections you can make.
For example, Kay Hall, 56, was able to creatively recycle her sales skills when she found a job at a law firm in Seattle. Now she looks for service opportunities for the firm's clients, using data-analysis techniques learned on her old job. "It was completely innovative for the legal field," she says.
Even in physically demanding fields, older employers have advantages, according to a study published in 2011. Researchers at the University of Mannheim, in Germany, studied teams of workers at a BMW plant. They found that productivity increased consistently as workers aged, right up to mandatory retirement, then at age 65. That's because veterans knew where to focus their efforts to deal with unexpected problems and prevent the most costly mistakes.
Next page: The power of patience. »