Think You Know an Employee’s ‘Age’? Don’t Be So Sure

Age in the workplace is far more complicated than adding up the number of birthdays an employee has celebrated. Not only is age a measure of how old an employee is, but it’s also a measure of energy, career trajectory, company tenure and more.

That’s according to an August 2012 study by The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Implications for employers abound.

Overall, employers need to be conscious of different perceptions on age and aim to override traditional age-based assumptions, said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of The Sloan Center and one of the co-authors of the study, “Through a Different Looking Glass: the Prism of Age.”

“Not all 50-year-olds are technologically incompetent,” Pitt-Catsouphes said. “But, sure, it’s true that [most] technology came after the baby boomers went through their early adult period.”

Having a greater handle on different definitions of age at work — and knowing how those definitions apply to employees — can help diversity leaders lead and motivate their workforce, Pitt-Catsouphes said. Outside of chronological age — the simplest form, referring to years lived since birth — there are 10 other modes of age in the workplace, according to Sloan.

Physical-Cognitive Age. This is when physiological changes occurring over time affect people’s ability to function, the study said. Health-related abilities as they relate to age will vary depending on the nature of the work — there might be differences between the age when a scientist is considered an older worker and that of a professional baseball player.

According to the study, employers should take three things into consideration when thinking about this type of age: a person’s physical and intellectual capacities and how they are related; the tasks that need to be accomplished for the job; and what kind of support is needed for this type of age in the workplace.

“Socioemotional” Age. Different aspects of people’s lives happen in stages. For instance, some aging experts, according to the study, say that as age increases, one’s view of life shifts from “time lived” to “time left.” This thinking may motivate older adults and younger adults in different ways.

Employers might find these factors helpful in understanding how different employees evaluate a sense of meaning in their work. Injecting community service or volunteer opportunities, for instance, may be more appropriate for employees with a different sense of “socioemotional” age.

Social Age. Social age is linked to the typical definitions of age bias — how old others think a person is. Sloan says age bias typically results in two negative outcomes: discriminatory attitudes or “behaviors that reflect the negative stereotypes,” or when internal attitudes occur — when employees begin to believe that they are “too young” or “too old” to accomplish something, even if they are able to. Employers can counteract age bias by recognizing that different age groups contribute to the success of the company.

Career Stage. Also known as career age or occupational age, this is when age is viewed in the context of a person’s career. According to Sloan, “this measure of age calibrates the person’s acquisition of knowledge, competencies and experiences against a developmental yardstick.”

The Sloan Center says traditional ideas about career stages are being turned upside down, however. Older adults who begin new careers may consider themselves to be in an early stage even though they may also bring a wealth of experience, according to the study. Implications for employers: older workers, despite assumptions about their place in their careers, still seek challenges and want to develop new skills.

Tenure. This type of age takes into account employees’ “organizational age,” which reflects the relationships employees may have with a supervisor, department or team based on how long they’ve been with the organization. Tenure has played a big part in determining promotion in the last century, serving as a key barometer of experience and competency, according to Sloan.

Normative Age. According to Sloan, societies and individuals have different views on what is “appropriate for a young person and an old person.” People, in turn, gauge age progress against their perceptions of these standards or norms. Employers can help more seasoned workers explore their potential at work, the Sloan study said, rather than assume older workers should wind down their work-related responsibilities.

Generational Age. This is when age cohorts are determined by birth years. The Sloan Center defines four cohorts of generations in the workplace: Millennials/Generation Y, born 1981-99; Generation X, born 1965-80; baby boomers, born 1946-64; and traditionalists/silent generation, 1900-45.

However, subpopulations are likely to exist within these generational groups — individuals of the same generation were likely to experience significant events of their time differently. Therefore, according to Sloan, employers should use caution when applying generational labels to employees.

Relative Age. Employees’ perceptions of age relative to others may affect their sense of ability. “Employees who see themselves as old, regardless of their chronological age, may feel less effective than those who perceive themselves to be young or even middle aged,” the study’s authors wrote.

Life Events Age. Life events, such as marriage or children, connect how age is perceived. Employers should aim to recognize how life outside of work can affect employees’ lives at work. Communications about programs tailored to groups with certain interests outside of work should also be sent to employees across age groups, according to Sloan, because younger employees might share similar outside-of-work events as older ones.

Subjective Age. In the end, people are only as old as they think they are. According to Sloan, the age employees perceive themselves to be might affect the decisions they make. Employees who “feel young” might invite conversations with supervisors about new roles and responsibilities, no matter how old they actually are.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.