Carola Kleinschmidt: Firstly, we are lacking realistic role models. The ideas of older people that shape how we think aren’t very realistic today. There are so many fit and active 70 or 80-year-olds nowadays – it’s different from our grandparents’ era. Secondly, our so-called cognitive bias – that is, our typical distorted perception – keeps us trapped in outdated ways of thinking.
What does that mean?
For example, people extrapolate what they know about one person and apply it to an entire group. Perhaps you have an old, crabby neighbour and so you assume that all other people of a similar age are generally like that. It’s difficult to alter a perception again once it has fixed itself into our minds.
What can we do to prevent that from happening?
You could, for example, consciously ask yourself: “Who is actually the most energetic person I know?” Then you’ll notice that the people who come to mind are often older. And we’re realising that nowadays it’s not actually about how many birthdays a person has celebrated, because instead we perceive vitality to be a young quality – and that’s got nothing to do with age.
It’s as simple as that?
Well, this mindset at least pushes us in a new direction. Having a positive view of our own aging is also helpful. Becca R. Levy, an American professor of psychology at Yale University, has spent many years researching which factors influence our lives the most.
She concludes that a positive view of growing older is the strongest factor contributing to a long life, bringing more than seven additional years of life on average. This is because phrases like, “Oh I’m too old for that now,” or, “That’s just my age,” lead us to stop being active and taking care of ourselves.
The key idea here is ‘age and jobs’. In your lectures, you refer to the fact that life expectancy has steadily increased in recent years. Is working until the age of 67 the future, then, or an unreasonable demand?
It’s enormous – in the last 150 years we’ve gained an average of 30 years of life. Circa 1850, people were only 60 years old on average. Today it’s assumed that many 50-year-olds will probably live to turn 90. The children being born at present may, on average, even live to be 100. In this respect, two extra years at work is actually not an unreasonable demand. Studies even show that a third of employees would actually like to work for longer. Work is a place where a lot of great things happen: we can utilise our talents, we have nice colleagues, ideally we gain some recognition...
So should we all loosen up a bit instead of arguing against retiring at 67?
The real problem is that people often feel like the extended obligation to work is concealing a hidden pension cut.
A person goes through various phases in their career. A 30-year-old has different needs than someone aged over 50. How should companies deal with that?
There are lots of things that a company can do to support employees in these different phases, from flexible working hours, further training for every age group and promotion of health, to providing support for professional changes. Job rotation, for example, is a key phrase. Today we know that those who always perform the same tasks for their entire working life have a certain likelihood of experiencing the effects of aging. That can be in the form of physical problems – for example, if the same lifting motion is used over and over – or also psychological – if, for example, an employee spends many years only dealing with difficult customers.
Two extra years at work is actually not an unreasonable demand.
What are the solutions?
Companies should encourage employees to undergo further training and therefore to continue gaining new skills and tasks.
How can the generations benefit from each other at work?
If we stop constantly evaluating one another from the standpoint of age then a lot will change. Then we could simply take a look at the ideas of the graduates and see which ones are interesting for the project – without also hurling a, “that won’t work anyway,” in their direction. And when an older colleague objects on the grounds that this, that and the other went wrong in a similar project, we could see that as useful information and not just as moaning. And it would probably very often become apparent that there are definitely older people who are very interested in the digital world – and younger people who don’t see the digital appeal at all.
It sounds so simple. Yet downright warfare is often being waged between the generations. Millennials vs. Silver Surfers, so to speak...
One problem in a lot of companies is that, under the guise of the age issue, there are often other unresolved areas of contention. If you ask young people why they are so irritated by the older generation, then it becomes apparent that they are simply fearful that they will never be allowed to take on responsibility, because the older employees occupy the posts that they would like to have. And that they therefore enjoy chipping away slightly at the authority of the older generation. And the older employees must admit that they also fear the force of the younger staff. And that they therefore turn a deaf ear sometimes with phrases like, “We’ve always done things this way”. And it’s also just a fact that, within a company, it’s always about posts and positions. We need to have more open discussions instead of hiding behind age-bashing.
More on the topic: ‘The restless generation’ on the search for meaning