Stop downturn stereotyping, managers advised

2009

Claims for age discrimination in both the US and UK have grown by nearly 30% over the year, a rise a leading academic says is the result of managers not focusing on job relevant requirements and staff abilities but instead falling back on embedded stereotypes about older workers.

Michael Campion, a professor of management at Purdue University and a leading authority on employment discrimination, says that the downturn has been hard on older workers, in large because of managers holding on to negative stereotypes about age.

He said: "Stereotypes are a natural consequence of how people's brains categorize information about the world around them. So it's not surprising that age stereotypes exist within the workplace. However, not all of them are accurate."

Costing more, being harder to train and less flexible, more likely to quit and resistant to change, are some of the stereotypes held by managers.

"They are likely to ask 'Who can we let go?' and often simply compare employees to each other, which increases the effects of stereotypes," says Campion.

He concedes that many stereotypes have "a grain of truth" to them. However, the problem is that all in the group get labeled with the same stereotype, he says. He also warned against ill-founded positive stereotyping as well as negative, such as older workers being more reliable.

As for the many of the negative stereotypes, there is a raft of research showing it not to be the case. For example, psychologists have shown work performance does not decline with age. Also, "…because of their experience, older workers tend to find more efficient ways of performing their jobs. And they are more helpful to their colleagues and exhibit better organizational citizenship," he says.

According to the annual HSBC Future of Retirement report, more than one in ten people across the globe already work into their 70s. In the US the figure is closer to a quarter. By 2050 the world's population of over-65s will grow from 550million to 1.4billion, suggesting a larger number of "snow-bird" workers globally.

In 2007 the number of people in the UK over the age of 65 exceeded the number of people below 16 years of age for the first time. The world is on course to match this trend by around 2080. Much of this growth will come in countries where access to pensions is limited, necessitating a longer working life.

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