A truly fascinating, just released book by psychology professor Becca Levy of Yale University shatters many of the basic – and completely wrong – assumptions that we have been told were gospel about aging as far back as most of us can recall.
“Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” provides answers to challenging questions facing both employers and America’s aging population itself.
Recently I chatted with Dr. Levy about the myths of getting older – how age impacts what we are able do. If you thought that the mere act of flipping pages on a calendar meant a decline in mental and intellectual health and that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” then step right up here for a doggy biscuit, because today’s story will dispel that belief.
For, as her book makes clear, “Thinking ourselves old is a self-fulfilling, dangerous prophecy.”
She is on a mission to convince an aging population to believe in themselves and realize that candles on a cake have no connection to reality, for the person blowing them out or their employer.
I asked her to list several of the more common myths about aging and their consequences for our society, the world of business, and each of us when we wake up one day with a wrinkle that wasn’t there before.
Myth No. 1: Your older workers are not as effective in the workplace. Reduce their job responsibilities.
Research shows: Both anecdotally and decades of research has shown that older workers take fewer days off for sickness and reflect a strong work ethic that rubs off on younger colleagues. From their employment experience – and life lessons – they often find effective shortcuts to accomplishing tasks more rapidly.
Also, for employers giving in to such a bias, it is an invitation for an age-discrimination lawsuit.
Myth No. 2: Older workers lack the ability to be creative.
Research shows: Creativity often increases in later life. Many artists, including Matisse, are credited with producing their most innovative work at an older age. Many writers will admit to finding their skills and their craft improving with age. The average age of 60 Minutes journalists was 71 in Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney’s day, and Lesley Stahl is still busily covering stories at age 80!
Successful startups are more likely to be run by entrepreneurs over 50 than under 30. Certain skills combined with creativity enable us, as we get older, to get better at problem solving on the job.
Having resolved conflicts across a lifetime keeps specific neurons active in making connections and better able to respond to new conflict situations which arise in every organization. The simple fact of aging and successfully managing real-world conflicts is a huge benefit to employers.
Myth No. 3: Older people in general don’t contribute to society and are selfish. On the job, they don’t help co-workers and only think of themselves.
Research shows: Older workers seek close, positive and productive relationships with co-workers. From a lifetime in a particular field, they are more able to see the potholes an employer needs to avoid.
Altruistic values were found to increase dramatically, while selfish behavior was uncommon. In general, older people engage in legacy thinking, wanting to help create a better world for their families, employers, friends and a true desire to benefit society.
Myth No. 4: Health is entirely determined by genetics and biology, and attitude plays no role.
Research shows: You may just shorten your own life span with this thinking! Studies show that only 25% of longevity is determined genetically. The other 75% is due to the influence of environment, psychological factors, personal beliefs and especially those about aging.
Culture in the form of age beliefs has a powerful influence on the health of older individuals. Holding positive age beliefs – including thinking that you are competent at what you tackle, creative and a good source of advice for family and friends – will greatly reduce the influence of propaganda that older people lose these abilities. Positive beliefs have a proven impact on cardiovascular health, mental and psychological well-being .
Myth No. 5: There is little to gained by hiring or training older employees in high tech, as you will be facing the “Old dog new tricks” frustration.
Research shows: The brain, instead of reaching a maximum leaning ability at around age 25 – the dogma of years ago – in fact is an organ capable of acquiring new skills at any age. Don’t allow flawed thinking to cheat yourself out of a real asset to your company.
Myth No. 6: Age doesn’t need to be included in diversity training programs.
Research shows: Failing to include age in your diversity strategy will be seen as a validation that older workers are worth less than younger workers. Surveys of employers in 78 countries showed that only 8% include age in diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Just think what they have lost!
Concluding our interview, Dr. Levy wants employers – from the mom and pop corner market to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – to understand the reality facing America’s aging population.
“Not all people want to retire or will be financially able to. We know from decades of experiences that an active mind and body keep us healthy. Strengthening positive beliefs about age gives us a longer, more productive and happier life.”
I can’t think of a better gift for that CEO or spouse who looks in the mirror and sees their mom or dad, wondering what will life be like for me as I age? What can I do now to influence how I will be as those pages on the calendar flip by so quickly?
Breaking the Age Code will give you the answer.