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This page was published on 23/07/2009
Published: 23/07/2009


Published: 23 July 2009  
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Human resources & mobility  |  Social sciences and humanities


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Lack of practice puts a dent in learning capability

The EU working population is expected to drop 9% by 2030 and experts project a decline in skilled labour as well. New research suggests that boosting employment rates of older workers is key to counterbalancing the effects of an ageing and shrinking workforce. Researchers from Jacobs University in Germany and the Adecco Institute in the UK have found that while older workers are becoming less 'investment-worthy' for enterprises, they actually have as much gumption in improving their skills as their younger peers.

Who says these hands can't work? © Shutterstock
Who says these hands can't work?
© Shutterstock

Two factors adversely impact the integration of older people in the workforce: a lack of appropriate lifelong learning that would help older workers stay motivated, productive and fit; and age stereotypes.

Further training is given to around 25% of workers aged 55 to 64 in the EU, and to 34% across the entire working population, according to the researchers. However, recent studies indicate that 50% of the older workers would be willing to take part in continued education in order to develop their job abilities and boost their career prospects.

If older workers are willing and able, why are companies not willing to invest in them, and specifically in their further training? The researchers said companies believe that most cognitive abilities decline linearly with age. The companies perceive older workers as being slow learners and inflexible, and as lacking computer skills or showing poor training performance.

The difference in the way businesses perceive older and younger workers is that they believe the former should have higher working morale, quality consciousness and loyalty, while the latter should be more flexible, and have higher learning ability and creativity.

In studies conducted by Jacobs University researchers, a mark against older workers is that they have 'unlearned to learn'. Learning abilities and knowledge can be lost over time, said the researchers, adding that older workers become fearful of learning new things and feel less confident in their training skills and know-how.

The lack of training affects older workers as information reception decelerates, reaction time drops, mobility is reduced and time-sensitive performance declines. The researchers say 'fluid intelligence' is needed for these skills. Fluid intelligence, the ability to find meaning in confusion and solve new problems, decreases as people get older, making room for crystallised intelligence, which is the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience.

This latest study shows that the main root of the problem in learning capability is lack of practice, not ageing. According to the team, if the brain is trained on a continual basis, learning is possible regardless of a person's age.

'One of Europe's core challenges of the 21st century is to react to demographic ageing by better integrating its older employees into the labour market, just as much as taking care of its youth,' explained Dr h.c. Wolfgang Clement, Chairman of the Adecco Institute and former German Minister of Economics and Labour.

'A precondition to assuring the integration of older employees is to retain and develop their employability by acquiring up-to-date skills throughout the whole working life. This concerns employees as much as companies as only a small share of firms considers older employees [to be interested] in and apt for training,' he added.

'Prevailing negative age stereotypes, which have little scientific substance, deter employees and companies from investments into continued learning and from developing training methods custom-made for the specific needs and capabilities of each age group.'

Ultimately, older workers would benefit immensely from further training, and companies would profit when their workers, both young and old, stay focused and motivated.

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Jacobs University
Adecco Institute
'Ageing science workforce may result in loss of knowledge, Eurostat warns'

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