People are living longer than ever now. And with it they work for more years and retire at a later age. This is pretty evident in aged care where the whole workforce is ageing.

You don’t have to look very far to see that older workers in most industries are under-appreciated. They can often be perceived and judged as being “less sharp” or “less productive” than their younger counterparts.

However, research says otherwise. A new brief from the Center for Retirement Research has found that many people, as they get older, are able to maintain productivity as they age—even as their natural capacity to process new information diminishes over time.

What the research shows is that what an older worker may lack in their ability to solve new problem, what is known as “fluid intelligence”, is made up for with their learned knowledge and the experiences they have accumulated over the years, which is known as “crystallised intelligence”

For example, look at nursing as a career – when a nurse is young, their fluid intelligence is at it’s peak which helps them to study and learn new things on the job. But as these nurses gain experience over time, with some working for decades, they rely more on crystallised intelligence to help recognise and solve problems.

Over time, many of the patient and resident problems these nurses will deal with become more familiar and regular, thus, having less need for new information and more reliance on old experiences.

The Center for Retirement Research brief mentioned a 2012 study by Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, which saw that a decline in cognitive abilities as people age doesn’t necessarily impair real-world functioning.

Practice of old or regular skills, can actually deepen cognitive function. For example, the ability to complete crossword puzzles and sudokus increases with age, suggesting that that experience and knowledge plays a role in such skills and possibly other abilities.

Crystallised intelligence is especially useful for clerical positions and activities, or any role that processes that become automatic over time. These workers are able to build up a reserve of fluid capacity that protects against decline, according to the new research.

Both crystallised and fluid intelligence can be impaired if a worker begins to experience symptoms of dementia. The Center for Retirement Research brief recommends that if the job has high cognitive demands, or could result in harm to another if not done properly, like many jobs in aged care, then workers over the age of 60 should be checked for their cognitive function and screened for any decline.

The main take-away that should be noted from such research is that older workers, with their experience and accumulated knowledge, should not be ignored for younger people. They do not lack or have less ability them, rather a different set of skills to offer. Most industries would benefit from having a mix of staff with a balance of crystallised and fluid intelligence.

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