A strong case for hiring, keeping older workers

Boss and employee.
Boss and employee. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Much of sub-Saharan Africa thrives with cultures that value and cherish people as they age. We respect our elders’ opinions, experience, and advice. We give them honour and prominence.

But our positive ageing society stands in stark contrast to the United States, as an example, that decreases human value as one ages. Older citizens’ input gets discarded, their opinions become irrelevant, and their lives sadly less important. Instead, youth culture gets worshipped and prioritised. The insulting Western phrase “OK boomer” degrades elders’ ideas and communication as so irrelevant that many view it as disgustingly humorous.

Mountains of studies come out warning about our cognitive mental decline as we age. From perineuronal nets becoming more inhibitory to decreases in motor function to neurotransmitter plasticity, among others. But many lay people find such studies as blah, blah, blah mumbo jumbo and rather just fear ageing in general.


In the American ageism example described above, workers over40 get legal protections from unfair hiring and firing practices because of extreme bias against older workers. Regardless of their legal protections, dozens of studies show biases and lack of employers willing to employee those over 40. Here in Kenya, we thankfully do not have much of this largely unfounded bias. Scientifically, there are some bright spots in our work output as we age that do not get much attention.


While some parts of the brain primarily responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus, slowly decrease their efficacy as we age, other pathways develop to help shoulder much of the burden and reduce the effects thus keeping us fit for the workplace long into old age.

Then, in terms of decision making, older workers far outshine their younger counterparts. Not a management conference goes by or leadership book gets printed that does not seem to reference “follow your instinct” and “go with your gut”. These scary psychologically incorrect instructions cause uncountable disastrous decisions all over the world every day. It makes listeners or readers want to stand up and shout “ENOUGH”. If a speaker or a writer does not know what to say, then one should not communicate at all instead of promulgating falsehoods.

Our brains developed over millennia to keep us safe with gut decisions in ancient Maasai Mara type of environments, not to navigate complicated modern life. Jerad Moxley, Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, and Ralf Krampe determine in creatively controlled experiments that slow controlled deliberation trump rash quick decisions in non-primitive-survival situations.

The world’s highest ranked hospital, the Mayo Clinic, found that gut decisions by doctors led to a staggering 54 percent error rate. Instead, doctors, like management and business professionals, should focus on logic and critical thinking instead of going with their emotional gut reactions to decision making.

But researchers Erik Dane, Kevin Rockmann, and Michael Pratt study how as people become greater subject matter experts in their fields, then they can rely more successfully on their intuition gut feeling with higher degrees of success. Expert status correlates positively with increasing age.

Surprisingly, something very interesting happens as we age and stay in a similar industry or profession. Our subconscious mind starts to build on decades of experience in thousands of right or wrong decision processes and corresponding outcomes. Once we hit 50, our gut instinct instant decisions actually start becoming correct more often than wrong. So older workers tend to be faster and more accurate decision makers.

Meanwhile, workers under 50 must follow a lengthy intentional logical decision-making process in order to reach similar levels of accuracy. Since leadership and management often entails thousands of decisions in any given month, older workers hold a substantial advantage in workplace output and success.

So, refrain from disparaging someone based on social trends. Instead learn the science and know the facts.