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Myths dominiate attitudes to older people in the workplace
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Myths dominiate attitudes to older people in the workplace

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

The notion that older people take jobs from the young simply isn’t true. Axel Börsch-Supan, a director at the German Max Planck Institute, debunks the myths surrounding older people in work.

There is no reason to believe that productivity falls as people grow older, and the best results are achieved through the use of mixed-age teams, he says. That is also the experience of Danish construction firm ‘Enemærke og Petersen’. Joiners Brian Hansen and Claus Jørgensen (above) are happy with this.

Professor Axel Börsch-Supan refers to a comprehensive international survey of 80,000 over 50s from 20 European countries when addressing the opening conference of the European year for active ageing and solidarity between generations in 2012.

Axel Börsch-Supan’s main focus has been people between 60 and 69, as many in this group have the opportunity to retire. Among the myths he is debunking are: that older workers retire early due to bad health, that older workers are less productive than their younger colleagues and that being retired is the pinnacle of happiness.

“Early retirement has nothing to do with bad health,” says Axel Börsch-Supan.

He says over 50s are generally in good health. There is a certain deterioration in health among 60 to 69 year olds, but the difference is less than the differences within each cohorte or age group. The survey also shows older workers don’t primarily retire due to poor health.

“Don’t fire older workers,” he goes on to warn.

Not only is it a myth that older workers are less productive than younger ones, it is actually incorrect, says professor Axel Börsch-Supan. The survey he is referring to is based on 100,000 observations of the manufacturing of the same type of product over a standardised period of time. The results show older workers made no mistakes. If experience is kept as a constant and you study only the age difference, there is no major difference between the age groups. 

If you study the effect of experience alone, results show older workers are no less productive when performing routine tasks. But a combination of age and experience gives the best results. This means that if you continue in the same job that you have been doing before, productivity will remain high. If older workers change jobs it can be difficult to keep productivity up. Learning then becomes a necessity.

A third myth which engages professor Axel Börsch-Supan is the one that says older workers look forward to retiring and that they don’t want to be active. Yet results show the joy of their new-won freedom soon fades. The survey shows people who retired early have less social contacts compared to when they were in work. 

It also shows retirement leads to lower cognitive stimulation. Many end up in front of their telly. Activities help you stay alert for longer. Could this have consequences for our retirement age? asks Axel Börsch-Supan.

A fourth myth he wants to get rid of is the one that says active older people ruin things for the young.

“Older workers do not take jobs from the young. This myth is the largest obstacle to increasing employment among the over 50s. The opposite is in fact true. Early retirement is expensive. It is also clear that countries with the lowest unemployment also see the lowest number of 60 to 64 year olds taking early retirement. It looks like activity breeds activity,” says Axel Börsch-Supan. 

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