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Use It or Lose It

By Robert J. Grossman  7/1/2008
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What happens as we age? What do managers need to know about the changes workers ages 50 to 64 go through? What can be done to help these workers be more productive?

Vision. People in their mid-40s—with women starting a year or two earlier—begin to suffer from presbyopia, a form of farsightedness. Their ability to see or read from a paper or computer screen becomes more difficult. When they perform close-up work, they may have headaches, eyestrain or fatigue. If they don’t use glasses, they’ll have to hold the newspaper farther and farther away or resort to surgery. An estimated 90 million people in the United States will have presbyopia by 2014.

Presbyopia is caused by loss of transparency in the lens of the eye, making it more difficult for light to come in. The contrast between what someone over 55 sees compared to younger workers is startling. To get the same visibility, you will need 10 times more light, says Alan Hedge, a biomedical and chemical engineering professor at Cornell and Syracuse universities.

The Canadian Research Council in Ottawa found that with properly adjusted light, people do 24 percent more work and are 42 percent more alert at the end of the day. Cornell University offers a “lighting visibility calculator that measures the light a person needs in 10-year increments.

How do you deal with workers requiring differing amounts of light? Companies such as Deutsche Bank install task lighting that enables each worker to self-select the amount of light he or she requires. In addition, illuminated keyboards make it easier for workers to transfer their gaze from monitor to keyboard.

Hearing. Age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, usually begins in the 40s. Onset varies, depending on genetics, work setting, whether you’ve been exposed to a noisy environment at home and whether you use headphones to listen to music. Not everyone suffers from hearing loss, but many do. The number affected increases as people hit their 50s, 60s and beyond, with an estimated 50 percent of the population experiencing some hearing deficit.

As we age, the ability to hear higher pitches declines, affecting men earlier than women. The impact can be significant, cutting some people off—they miss what’s going on, they’re removed from the flow of conversation in the office—while others hear clearly.

Also, as we age, the decibel level required to fully comprehend speech tends to rise. And background noise that a younger person blocks out makes it harder to hear or concentrate.

Managers can compensate for hearing loss by providing phones with higher volume controls. It’s also advisable to remove unnecessary noise distractions from the work environment.

Dexterity and flexibility. Thirty-one percent of jobs are primarily physical and require little cognitive ability. These are jobs that mature workers may have greater difficulty with. Workers lose speed, strength and dexterity as they age, beginning at age 40. They also tend to get heavier, gaining on average a pound a year, peaking in their 50s. It takes longer for them to do physical tasks—even tasks as basic as typing. Weight tends to level off in the 60s, and then goes down as body cells are lost.

Still, you can slow the decline through exercise and practice. “Be a concert pianist well into your 70s and 80s and amaze people, but only if you practice every day. Play video games; you won’t be good at it, but it helps train reaction time,” Hedge says.

However, few people do much to maintain strength and dexterity. As a result, managers need to reorganize work so employees will have to remain active. Encourage people to stand and walk; support wellness activities. But inevitably, as strength and flexibility decline, managers need to look at job design, technology and ergonomics to help workers compensate.

Cognition. The number of jobs that require cognitive skills—reasoning, thinking, problem-solving and innovative solutions, for example—is increasing. Richard Johnson, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, estimates that 69 percent of jobs in the United States are in this category and that educated people ages 50 to 64 do them efficiently. “For most jobs that require cognitive skills, you won’t see a cognitive decline through the worker’s 60s,” he says.

Such jobs require a combination of cognitive skills characterized either as “fluid abilities” or “crystallized abilities.”

Fluid abilities. Fluid abilities are “IQ items,” such as abstract problem-solving and on-the-spot reasoning. Johnson says practice can make a difference. Surgeons, dentists and musicians who maintain their skills at high levels do so through consistent, deliberate practice.

Hedge says memory lapses occur when information you want to retain is not encoded into your long-term memory. You can train your brain to do this by engaging in cerebral pursuits outside of work. “The brain can shift neurons that run programs needed for doing activities like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, chess or bridge, and apply them to memory tasks,” he says. Some companies encourage these activities during off-hours as part of wellness programs.

Crystallized abilities. Crystallized abilities constitute the facility to access stored information—verbal skill, mastery of knowledge and facts. These skills, and the information acquired, accrete; they get better over time.

“Acquired knowledge, enhanced communication skills and sharper decision-making can offset age-related declines in mental efficiency,” says Neil Charness, a professor of psychology at the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University.

For example, older airline pilots taking flight simulation tests scored lower than younger counterparts on aspects of the test that required fluid ability. But their crystallized skills enabled them to earn overall higher safety scores.

Similarly, older lab workers studying specimens under microscopes were more efficient than younger workers because they knew what to look for. Mature hotel reservation clerks were more productive than younger associates, though they handled fewer calls, because their communication skills generated more bookings.

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.


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