Older workers bring valuable knowledge to the job, study says

April 1, 2015
Credit: Ethan, SportSuburban, Flickr via Creative Commons.

In the workplace, age matters - but hiring or promoting based on age-related mental abilities can be a minefield, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

Older executives bring valuable skills to the job, such as higher "crystallized intelligence," which includes verbal ability and knowledge born of experience, according to a study published in APA's Journal of Applied Psychology. But compared with their younger counterparts, older executives show marked declines in "fluid intelligence," which involves the ability to reason, the research found.

"We found that older executives performed somewhat worse on tests of general mental ability, and markedly worse on figural and inductive reasoning tests, which assess fluid intelligence," said lead researcher Rachael M. Klein, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota. "Given the rising numbers of older employees in the workforce, as well as the rise in age-based discrimination cases, it is increasingly important for employers to be careful regarding which tests of cognitive abilities they administer."

The article details several studies designed to measure the general mental ability of . One sample included 3,375 individuals applying to executive-level jobs - vice president or general manager positions within professional, technical, line and sales occupations. Participants' ages ranged from 20-74 at the time of application. These applicants completed standardized psychological tests that were part of a managerial and professional test battery.

Tests of both fluid and crystallized cognitive abilities were administered. According to Deniz S. Ones, PhD, a study co-author, solving problems on fluid ability measures does not depend on prior learning, but rather on abstract reasoning ability. In one test that measured fluid intelligence, applicants were instructed to identify one of four pictures that best matched a target picture. High scores on this test, which is representative of tests typically used in employment settings, indicate more advanced non-verbal and analytical reasoning skills. Another fluid intelligence test involved showing participants a series of letters and asking them to quickly identify the letter that would complete the sequence.

"Crystallized represent acquired knowledge," said Ones. To measure crystallized cognitive ability, participants were given a vocabulary test.

The researchers found that general mental ability decreased gradually across age groups relative to applicants under age 30, with more marked declines for groups older than 59. "Beyond 59, average test scores for the older age groups decreased more rapidly," they wrote.

With respect to crystallized intelligence, older individuals had higher scores on average compared with younger ones. However, fluid abilities showed the largest declines with age, while inductive reasoning slid downward as well, according to the study. The researchers replicated these findings in several large, representative general population samples.

These results should be used by employers to help them avoid age discrimination, according to the researchers. "Organizations should be cautious when using certain tests of inductive reasoning, given the magnitude of age differences we found in this research," said Stephan Dilchert, PhD, the second author of the study. "Hiring or promoting on such measures alone may lead to younger individuals being selected at much greater rates than older candidates."

Future research should focus on how best to help older workers transition to new positions or careers, the authors said. "Future research is needed on training outcomes for older employees who are learning new job skills unrelated to their current position or career," Klein said.

Explore further: Neuroscientists find that different parts of the brain work best at different ages

More information: "Cognitive Predictors and Age-Based Adverse Impact Among Business Executives," by Rachael M. Klein, University of Minnesota; Stephan Dilchert, PhD, Baruch College, The City University of New York; Deniz. S. Ones, PhD, University of Minnesota; and Kelly Dages, PhD, General Dynamics Information Technology. Journal of Applied Psychology, published online Mar. 30, 2015.

Related Stories

Neuroscientists find that different parts of the brain work best at different ages

March 6, 2015
Scientists have long known that our ability to think quickly and recall information, also known as fluid intelligence, peaks around age 20 and then begins a slow decline. However, more recent findings, including a new study ...

Debunking aging myths in financial decisions

January 14, 2015
Growing older leaves many with a gloomy prognosis, namely that cognitive aging will slow the mind and the ability to make decisions. However, when it comes to making financial decisions, many baby boomers would be pleased ...

Declining intelligence in old age linked to visual processing

August 4, 2014
Researchers have uncovered one of the basic processes that may help to explain why some people's thinking skills decline in old age. Age-related declines in intelligence are strongly related to declines on a very simple task ...

Study finds which brain skills are more likely to last over a lifetime

January 9, 2015
Research from the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL) at The University of Texas at Dallas has shed new light on which cognitive processes tend to be preserved with age and which ones decline.

Older is wiser, at least economically

September 24, 2013
The brains of older people are slowing but experience more than makes up for the decline, a University of California, Riverside assistant professor of management and several colleagues found when asking the participants a ...

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Schizophrenia disrupts the brain's entire communication system, researchers say

October 17, 2017
Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain's entire communication system.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.