Aging brains at the office become more productive

Gloria Dunn-Violin

THE NEW RETIREMENT: A PARADIGM SHIFT GLORIA DUNN-VIOLIN, THE NEW RETIREMENT: A PARADIGM SHIFT BY GLORIA DUNN-VIOLIN

Do the brains of aging employee slow down and become less productive, innovative and effective? Or, do they become more prolific over time?

Actually, as individuals’ age, their brains get smarter and function better. As we age, “the brain begins to compensate by using more of itself,” said Bruce Yankner, M.D., Ph.D., professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging at Harvard Medical School. He notes that MRIs taken of a teenager working through a problem show a lot of activity on one side of the prefrontal cortex, the region we use for conscious reasoning. In middle age, the other side of the brain begins to pitch in a little. In older workers, both sides of the brain share the task equally.

That’s why studies have shown that older people have better judgment, are better at making rational decisions, and are better able to screen out negativity than their juniors. Also, inductive and spatial reasoning improve at middle age. This is no fault of younger employees. It’s just how we all develop. They too will have these magnificent older brains as they age.

Interestingly, the mastery that comes with maturity is also due to changes in our glands as well as in our brains. Declining levels of testosterone — even in women — result in better impulse control. The end of the hormonal roller coaster of perimenopause may also contribute to emotional stability. After midlife, people are less likely to have emotional issues like mood swings and neuroses that interfere with cognitive function.

In addition, mature employees have acquired the ability to think strategically as well as use their creativity to find and implement solutions to issues they face. They know how to interact with others, work as part of a team, and diffuse conflicts when necessary. They are also great mentors. Why wouldn’t you want someone like that on your team? Someone like Eva?

Eva walked into the ADG Company on Monday morning as the new office manager. She was thrilled when she got the job. Her resume highlighted her strengths, including organizational, strategic and people skills. It also showed her dependability, loyalty and focus. She is a natural on paper and even more so in person. Eva is 72.

“Why isn’t she retired,” you might ask? She’s finally at the age where she can collect full Social Security and stay home. But, Eva doesn’t want to stay home. She wants to be where the action is. She wants to be out in the world and interact with people of all ages, races, nationalities, and skill sets. She knows there is more excitement to being involved in the world than just walking her dog every day. Also, she wants to use her skills, energy, and creativity to make a contribution to the world. It just happens to be at her new job.

Potentially 75 million baby boomers will retire over the next few years. Due to lower birthrates for the Gen X and Millennial generations, there will not be enough workers available to replace them. This is a serious situation that employers must address now. Yet, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey, only 3 percent have a formal strategy to recruit older workers, and only 4 percent have a formal strategy to retain them.

Today’s business sector needs to challenge assumptions about aging workers and change human resource engagement policies. Companies need to realize the value of older employees not only because they are smarter than previously understood, but they continue to significantly contribute to the bottom line.

In the future, how will businesses succeed without enough people-power to perform jobs? By ignoring the facts that seasoned workers may retire, companies will experience labor shortages and lower productivity.

Hiring older employees and forging multigenerational work relationships inside the workplace may be the answer to creating a robust future for businesses. By using the combined skills and expertise of all age groups, businesses will benefit from these unlimited resources, and be able to soar into the next decades intact and with aplomb.

The New Retirement: A Paradigm Shift is a recurring column by Gloria Dunn-Violin (havingalifenow.com, 415-259-7090, gloriaviolin@yahoo.com). She is a speaker, certified retirement life coach, seminar leader, and business consultant through her company, HAVING A LIFE After Making a Living. She also advises financial, insurance and other businesses on how to provide their clients and employees with meaningful advice about aging and retirement.