Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Peaking late? Older workers and retirement

April 18th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

There is a great deal of chatter in the media about older workers and retirement.  In large part, this is caused by the population bubble (the Baby Boomers) who are quickly approaching the ‘typical’ age of retirement.  It also reflects changing legislation around retirement itself.  The Economist recently published a special section on this very issue.  The opening paragraph of Michael Morgenstern’s piece caused me to think to a little deeper about the implications of the retirement issue.  Now, there are some implications which are obvious that have economists up in arms – size of the labour market, supporting a larger elderly population than ever before in our history.  And there are other issues that have Organizational Behaviourists and Human Resource Managers excited – replacing the talent, losing leadership, knowledge loss and so on.  This is all true, and I do not pretend to present a novel perspective on the issue, however, I would like to connect some of these ideas to what I know about learning, expertise, and resiliency.  

The story about Winston Churchill is illustrative; most folks ‘peak’ after they have gained some experience and awareness of their work context.  Because we live in such a digital world we prize skills that are often associated with youth.  We can all think of young people who have made it big because of a great idea.  To use these examples to support the notion that youth is necessary for success would be to fall victim to a bias called ‘representation‘ –  the cases we can recall are biased when compared to the base rate of the phenomenon in the field.  We forget that most people are doing their best work later in their careers, once they have learned the field, understood the context, and acquired some expertise.  In Winston Churchill’s case, he peaked at 65 – the very age we would have asked him to retire according to our old legislation.  

My own thoughts centre around the notion that we are losing more than just knowledge.  Our experienced workers are certainly a storehouse of important information, but they arguably hold other skills that are equally as important.  Experience brings many things including self-efficacy and resiliency.  Remember the old saying – “everything old is new again”?  Our experienced workers have seen ‘it’ before.  They know when to be worried, when to push forward, when to invest, and when to bail.  Their confidence and ability to bounce back is an asset that helps organizations stay focussed and confident in times of turmoil.  These are skills that cannot be taught or passed down through a knowledge management system.  They are based on social learning through trial and adaptation.  While the young kid might have a million dollar idea, the experienced individual will have the confidence to take those ideas forward and persist even when faced with obstacles.

I know that I talk about self-efficacy a lot, but it fits in so neatly here.  According to Bandura’s work, our self-efficacy (confidence) is learned through interaction with others and our surrounding environment.  Self-efficacy is essential for learning and high performance.  This speaks directly to the type of asset experience is to our workforce.  Another reason to value those Baby Boomers!


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