Recently, while doing research for a client project, I came across an article in The Economist titled (not even kidding): Over 30 and over the hill. The premise of the article is that productivity peaks at age 35 and then plummets because mental ability declines with age. Actual quote:
“For most workers, decreased abilities will lead to lower productivity; only a minority will find know-how, knowledge and the ability to prattle convincingly outweighs their failing powers. And even for these, returns diminish: experience only counts for so much.”
Full disclosure: I’m 44. That’s Gen X. I’m still getting used to being called old. So, my first reaction to this condescending drivel/article was straight-up indignation. However, after some research and self-reflection, I realized that productivity does change as you get older. But, not necessarily for the worst.
Whether you remember when MTV played music videos or you just work with people who do, here are a few things to consider about productivity and aging.
Generational warfare is not the answer
You know what’s bad for productivity? Arguing over which generation is least productive or debating which age group wastes more time at work. The Economist article—published more than 10 years ago—is just an early version of the generation-based finger-pointing that’s all over the media today: Boomers aren’t productive because they’re slow and out of touch. Millennials are lazy and always on their phones. Etc., etc.
Badmouthing older or younger generations isn’t new. (“Kids these days!”) However, for the first time in the modern business era we have four generations together in the workplace. Like hundreds of generations before us, we have a lot to learn from each other. We just have to remember to take into consideration the differences in learning styles, communication preferences, and values.
Some mental abilities increase with age
Some myths about aging are true. Your short-term memory does start to flake out (e.g., Why did I just come into the kitchen again?). Learning new things can take a bit longer than it used to (e.g., My 10 year old figures out how apps work faster than I do, even though I’ve been working on interactive projects since 1993).
But, for the record, there are some things that older people kick ass at. Studies have shown that:
Analytical skills continue to develop as we age
Verbal fluency and communication skills peak in your mid-50s
Abilities that depend on knowledge and experience continue to grow over time
Creative productivity (such as creative output for artists) peaks between age 40-60
Lastly, the more educated and/or experienced you are, the more likely you are to retain your skills. If you are good at something repeatable—say math problems or writing documentation—chances are you will keep those skills and continue to improve on them throughout your working life.
Roles become less focused on productivity as we age
Productivity, by definition, is about producing something—making the shoes at the shoe factory, creating the strategy for clients at a consulting firm, or designing the fancy new smartphone app. As people get older, jobs aren’t always about making the donuts. Senior workers are more likely to be managers, mentors, or administrators—using their experience to help the producers produce.
Older people learn to say “no”
As careers progress, the things that motivate and satisfy people change. Sometimes that means becoming less productive on purpose. Many older people start working part-time or take less strenuous jobs—not because they can’t hack it, but because there are other things they’d rather do.
I know this from experience. I used to equate productivity with personal value. I worked two jobs in college, pulled 70-hour weeks in my 20s, and accomplished a lot of my career goals in my 30s by working ridiculous amounts. But after a particularly grueling (and rewarding) job in my late 30s, I decided I wanted more than just a career. Like Ben Franklin, instead of just doing, I wanted to do good. Now I have a job that, while busy at times, lets me choose my projects and keep my life in balance. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Come to find out, productivity is kind of overrated.
One last thought: There is no author listed on the Economist article. Considering it was written in 2004, even if the author was in their early 20s then, they’re likely 35 or older now. Snicker. Poor thing prattling along. Experience only counts for so much.