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Older workers are more stable, study finds

Who would you expect to be the more productive and reliable contributor to your workforce: a 25-year-old or a 70-year-old? New research indicates that retirement-age workers deliver more consistent work—and are less likely to make costly mistakes—than their youthful counterparts.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that the cognitive performance of older adults (age 65-80) is far more steady day-to-day and within single days than that of younger adults (age 20-31). The findings are published in the current issue of Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, in a paper titled "Keeping It Steady: Older Adults Perform More Consistently on Cognitive Tasks Than Younger Adults."

The psychologists put more than 200 younger and older adults through a series of tasks that tested perceptual speed, episodic memory, and working memory. They repeated the testing over 100 days to assess the participants’ learning improvements as well as their day-to-day performance fluctuations.

In all 9 cognitive tasks, older workers showed less performance variability from day to day than younger workers. According to psychologist Florian Schmiedek, one of the paper’s three authors, “Analyses indicate that the older adults’ higher consistency is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood.”

In an earlier study, Schmiedek and his colleagues found that, compared with younger adults, older adults experience less stress overall, have more consistent stressor profiles, and report that stress has less impact on their daily routines.

Axel Börsch-Supan, a leading thinker on the economics of aging and the impact of aging on society, says a study in the auto manufacturing industry has shown that serious, expensive errors are much less likely to be committed by older workers than by younger ones. Those findings are consistent in other industries studied: “One does not observe higher productivity among the younger relative to the older workers,” he says. Börsch-Supan concludes, “On balance, older employees’ productivity and reliability is higher than that of their younger colleagues.”

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