Aging Workers: Lessons for Employers

by James McDonough

Discrimination,  Member Matters

The issue of aging employees is fraught with peril for employers who do not handle it well. Assuming older workers are incapable or require special assistance due to their age creates legal problems for employers. Legal mandatory retirement, very uncommon, is based on the assumption that aging leads to diminished job performance. Examples include air traffic controllers (56) and commercial airline pilots (65). Many consider this legalized age discrimination; indeed, there is no definitive research that supports such universal standards.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act grants rights to employees who claim age discrimination, encouraging employers to take a defensive stance on managing aging workers. A rational choice of action that may limit the possibility of new opportunities for both parties. A Wharton Business School report describes the many reasons older workers choose to remain in the workforce (e.g., love of work, need for money, desire to contribute),indicating that employers must manage workplace age diversity with more than compliance in mind.

Fortunately, research offers lessons for employers to both enhance aging workers’ workplace
experience and boost organizational effectiveness.

A study published in the MIT Sloan Review identifies important differences between managers who are in their 20s and 30s, versus those in their 50s and 60s. One salient finding—when making decisions, older managers have a tendency to value relationships,employee emotions, and organizational purpose more than younger managers do. This appears to be correlated to life experience versus classroom learning. The study concludes that employers benefit from balancing the strengths of both younger and older managers,and offers these strategies to leverage the age diversity:

  1. Enhanced awareness of self and others improves performance of work teams.
  2. Age-diverse teams must acknowledge differences and develop a shared perspective.
  3. Age diversity is an asset that can be leveraged.


In a July 2019 Atlantic Monthly article, studies indicate age may impact job performance,both positively and negatively. Peak performance often occurs in an employee’s 20s or 30s for roles that require “fluid intelligence,” such as leaders of high-tech start-ups. Older workers tend to excel in roles that benefit from “crystallized intelligence,” such as teaching and mentoring. The author urges individuals to face the reality of aging, to not despair, and instead reframe what success looks like. Instead of striving to be the best in what one has always done, identify a new role for the future.

An employee’s deeply personal “internal conversation” about their career as they age will vary greatly by individual; employers would be wise to not attempt to take the lead on this issue with their employees. Instead, crafting a workplace culture that values personal development and psychological safety supports an employee’s self-realization journey. Opening a dialog around goals and skills, in an open culture where employees feel safe to be vulnerable,is an appropriate way to engage with all employees to discuss their needs and maximize their effectiveness.

About the author
James McDonough

James McDonough, HR Research Consultant, consults with Employers Council members to provide guidance and support on their organizational practices. He writes articles, conducts presentations and trainings on HR compliance, organizational effectiveness and business management topics. A graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, James has worked in the public and private sectors in HR and business management.