As a growing number of older adults find themselves looking for work, it is important to understand how older adults are viewed and treated in the workplace. Despite age discrimination laws, misperceptions regarding aging and older adults in general persist. A recent meta-analysis (Bal et. al., 2011) presents the last few decades of research on the perceptions of older workers, and suggests that these perceptions include both positive and negative assumptions.
The researchers searched for all studies on age and employment published between 1960 and 2010—including dissertations and theses, as well as unpublished sources. Tracking down unpublished studies (usually done by contacting experts and other known researchers in a given field) is an important aspect of a meta-analysis because it is important to include “uninteresting” or negative findings in the sum of all research performed on a given topic. Each study had to include a comparison with older and younger workers, measure a relevant workplace outcome, and include data (e.g. sample sizes, standard deviations) that enabled the researchers to incorporate it with the other studies. In sum, the meta-analysis included 37 original studies, three of which had never been published.
According to the authors, this meta-analysis builds on previous meta-analyses by using an improved statistical method and by looking at particular outcomes, rather than just investigating whether older workers are viewed positively or negatively. As a result, based on previous findings, the authors were able to examine whether age could have an effect on five separate workplace outcomes:
- potential for advancement,
- suitability for a particular job,
- workplace performance,
- interpersonal skills, and
Older workers were viewed negatively in four domains:
- potential for job advancement,
- suitability to be selected for any given job,
- general evaluations, and
- interpersonal skills.
And positively in one area:
The “effect sizes”, or overall influence of age on the outcome measure, were statistically significant and medium-sized. That is to say, within the meta-analysis, there was an overall bias finding older workers moderately less apt in several work domains, but somewhat more reliable.
The authors support their findings with the argument that cognitive biases brought to a given situation, such as the tendencies that found in their meta-analysis, influence judgment and behavior. The authors outline several trends and changes within the labor market that, they argue, will make cognitive age biases particularly relevant. For example, an increase in contract employment, flexible scheduling, and telecommuting translates to less interpersonal work contact. This decrease in interpersonal contact makes it more likely for individuals to use age and other stereotypes in their perceptions of co-workers, as they have fewer opportunities to get to know one another as individuals. The authors also argue that as the workforce ages, managers and trainers will need to acknowledge these biases and ensure that they don’t effect employment decisions.
Bal, A.C.; Reiss, A.E.B.; Rudolph, C.W.; and Baltes, B.B. (2011). “Examining Positive and Negative Perceptions of Older Workers: A Meta-Analysis.” The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.[doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbr056; epub ahead of print]