Proof at last - older employees are not less innovative than younger workers

For decades now, there have been several highly persistent myths about older workers which have negatively influenced organisations' behaviour and had a detrimental effect on their performance.

The widespread negative stereotyping of older workers has led to many managers believing without a scrap of scientific evidence to support it, that older workers:
  1. Have poorer health and thus greater absenteeism and lower productivity 
  2. Have shorter job tenure, demand higher salaries and pension benefits and hence are more expensive 
  3. Are less technologically competent 
  4. Are more rigid and resistant to change 
  5. And last but not least, are less innovative and creative in the workplace and their jobs. 
Myths 1-4 above are relatively simple to disprove through even the most cursory scrutiny of available data and research. For example, earlier research by Ng and Feldman (2008) showed conclusively that, ‘older workers exhibit stronger extra-role performance and less counter-productive behaviour than younger workers’.

Firm conclusions about creativity and innovation however have proved elusive due to the complexity of acquiring reliable data. Until now.

Last month, The Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology published new research by Thomas W. H. Ng and Daniel C. Feldman from the University of Hong Kong and The University of Georgia, respectively.

Titled excitingly (!) ‘A meta-analysis of the relationships of age and tenure with innovation-related behaviour’, this research proves conclusively that older workers are no less innovative or creative than younger workers, and under the right conditions are much more so.

By the year 2020, Americans who are over 55 years old will comprise close to 30% of the residential population of the United States and a similar percentage in the UK and Eurozone countries. The over- 55’s will also by that time comprise c.25% of the workforce.

Not surprisingly therefore, this topic is assuming a greater than ever degree of importance, not just from the point of view of fairness, but also from the perspective of the maximisation of the value of organisations’’ human capital.

‘Innovation-related behaviour’ (IRB) was the focus of this latest research. As innovation has become more critical component of an individual’s contribution to an organisation’s performance, an accurate assessment of the relationship between employee age and IRB is becoming even more important for managers to understand.

Moreover, as Sternberg (2001) and Choi and Chang (2009) have emphasised, ‘creativity only adds value when the people who generate new ideas can persuade others of their utility and can convince others to implement those ideas. If new ideas do not gain widespread attention, are poorly implemented, or are never implemented at all, they have virtually no impact on the organisation’s ability to innovate’.

The often superior levels of communication and influencing skills displayed by older workers give them a distinct advantage in this valuable respect too.

The methodology adopted by Ng and Feldman involved the meta-analysis of 98 empirical studies. Put another way, this means that no fewer than 98 separate previous studies and their respective data were selected and aggregated to create not only a diverse but also an up to date sample. The results therefore have a high degree of statistical reliability.

The research conclusions are summarised in the research report thus: 

  • Contrary to common belief, the results of this study show that age and tenure are not negatively related to innovation-related behaviours. 
  • Older and longer-tenured workers do not engage in less innovation-related behaviour than younger, more junior workers 
  • These results hold true even at the high end of the age and years of service continuum 
  • This study concludes that the negative stereotype that older and longer tenured workers are less innovative is not based on accumulated empirical evidence.
  • As such excluding older workers from innovation-related tasks is counter-productive. 

Sadly I do not think that this report will be the end of the matter. Stereotyping takes years to eradicate in all areas of life, but I am hopeful that gradually, the findings of this important piece of work will filter through to organisations and start to eliminate the perpetuation of these myths and falsehoods. It’s vital not just to older workers, but to all of us and the success of the organisations we work in.

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