Young workers need jobs to launch their careers. Older workers need jobs to extend theirs. So when employers have new positions to fill, they're torn between the high value of experienced workers and the low cost of new staffers.
One argument traditionally made in favor of younger employees is that while they can make decisions and acquire new skills more quickly, older workers' minds inevitably experience some decline. But new research into the cognitive abilities of people in middle age and beyond argues strongly against casting them aside.
Barbara Strauch, deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking, 2010), cites large-scale longitudinal studies completed in recent decades, as well as newly detailed scans of middle-aged (and older) brains, as proof that many of our expectations about mental decline in middle age are just false.
In the Workplace, Brains vs. Bias
“We used to think we lost 30 percent of our brain cells” as we aged, Strauch says, “but now we can watch living brains and count neurons in new and more exact ways, and we can see that some neurochemicals decline, but in general our brains stay pretty intact. We don’t see a huge drop-off in healthy brains throughout our lives.”
Such findings, Strauch says, "are shocking and really new and also quite encouraging." Not only do our brains retain their cognitive abilities, she says, but in many ways they've been found to be superior to younger brains, especially in areas valuable to the workplace, like judging character, considering a broad range of opinions, and evaluating the potential ramifications of decisions. “Logical reasoning increases as we age beyond our 20s because the brain continues to develop and build connections,” Strauch explains. "The physical ability to size up a situation and the experience to make a judgment increases from 40 to 65.
“By middle age," she says, "we’ve been on the planet a long time negotiating personal relationships, complex jobs and hobbies. The basic machinery is operating very well. We get a brain that has very little decline and has built connections and patterns that help us size up situations.”
The studies Strauch cites in her book show that when an older person is faced with new information, it takes him or her somewhat longer to assimilate it and act on it than someone younger might. But when dealing with material that in any way relates to information it already has, the middle-aged brain sees patterns more quickly, and reaches conclusions more effectively than younger minds can.
The greatest challenge to older workers, then, may be stereotypes in the culture at large. “We have had this culture of decline, that says that every year we’re worse off,” Strauch says. “The culture tells us to go home: You’re too old to be a teacher, a writer, anything. It’s ingrained in birthday-card culture and magazine culture, and the working world of course is horrible. But you can't let the culture define who you are. You need to appreciate what your brain can do for you."
The business world especially needs our expertise, she says. "I have twentysomethings living at home who need a job and it’s rough," Strauch says, "but I can’t imagine a business that doesn’t need both" younger and older employees.
Keeping Your Middle-Aged Mind Sharp
Strauch offers these tips for keeping your middle-aged mind sharp and, as she calls it, "a brain that is fun to use during the day”:
- Keep your body moving. “Exercise is a slam dunk,” Strauch says. “The brain needs oxygen, so we need to move our bodies around." Researchers have found that people who walked around a track three days a week performed better on cognition tests than people who didn’t. "You find it over and over" in related studies, Strauch says. "People who are sedentary and stop being sedentary improve.”
- Challenge your brain. Your brain finds solutions because it recognizes patterns. To be able to do that, you need to fill it with as many different perspectives as you can. "We need to push our brains really hard," Strauch says. "Expose yourself to people who you disagree with, whether it means watching MSNBC or Fox News. Get different perspectives, even if it's only from your children. Being exposed to different age groups and different vantage points is important.”
- Embrace the gray. "Our brains are set up for complex problems," Strauch says. In lectures dealing with theories that are up for debate, younger students can get frustrated, she says. "But older people realize that even if our information is not perfect, it’s the best we have and it’s still fascinating. I bring a brain to this endeavor that is useful to decide what to pay attention to and what not to. I’ll hear from both sides and make up my own mind, or just hold that ball in the air. I can leave it as a shade of gray."