Ageing and learning in the workplace: Is age just a number?

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26 Oct 2016

Dr Kath AtkinsonDr Kath Atkinson, Researcher, University of Leicester


Articles on how to manage the growing age spectrum in the workforce are increasingly common. They talk of baby boomers and generation-this or generation-that, as if they were different species. However, a recent IES paper encouraged employers to '...avoid drawing stereotypical assertions based on age or making the erroneous assumption that young people are uniquely different and need managing in a uniquely different way'. This point is expanded here by considering older people and their workplace learning. 

With the extension of working lives, the number of older workers is increasing. Organisations need to know how to help their older employees maintain and enhance their skills/knowledge, so that they can continue to be productive. Consequently, understanding this growing segment of the workforce is an increasingly important issue. In this piece we consider whether using someone's year of birth is a good way to determine their approach towards workplace learning. 

It is well known that there are several ways to determine age, apart from the number of years since birth. For example, life stage, personal perception of age and mental acuity. However, perhaps due to its easy availability, chronological age seems to have become the default measure. In the UK, 50 is commonly used as the start of 'old' when analysing the labour market, although some countries use 45 or 55. As ever-older workers become more numerous, 65 is becoming an unofficial boundary age for the 'older old'. Whatever age is used, does someone's age provide a reasonable way of delineating differences in workplace learning?

Research evidence is very mixed. 'Older' workers are said to have lower enthusiasm to engage in training and development; receive less on- and off-the-job training; and receive training of shorter duration and lower quality (ibid).  These all imply that older workers are significantly disadvantaged, perhaps by their own choices or by employer decisions. Other research provides a different perspective, noting a similar willingness to learn, and evidence that older workers have undertaken more training than younger colleagues. Knowledge about older workplace learners is therefore rather confusing. One reason for this is because there are more factors to consider than just age.

Take IT engineers as an example. This sector is a good one to look at as it is largely sedentary and existing workers can remain in the profession as they age, unlike those in very physical occupations such as construction work. In a recent (unpublished) study of IT engineers that I carried out, factors such as constant learning, having stimulating work, variety and challenge were rated highly by all ages. Additionally, all age groups recorded high scores for both 'acquisitive learning' (such as pre-planned sessions with a defined 'teacher' imparting information) and also 'participative learning' (such as being shown how to do something by other workers or working with colleagues to solve a problem). Stereotypical 'coasting' was not present: older workers were similarly enthusiastic towards various 'types' of learning compared to other age groups.

Digging deeper into the figures revealed a notable difference where qualifications were concerned. For older employees, learning content was more important than certification. The under-30s were far more likely to undertake extra study to achieve a qualification. For most over-50s to consider extra study, it had to be directly relevant to their current role, whereas this proviso did not apply so strongly to younger respondents. Interestingly, although older employees were less keen to obtain a qualification per se, they did not shun them when the content was directly relevant to their current work. Therefore, for these IT engineers it was not the pursuit of knowledge that varied with age but the pursuit of qualifications.

This may seem like a clear case where age does indicate different behaviour: older workers were adopting a more 'discerning' approach and choosing only those training episodes they considered would complement their current needs. Hints of this approach to development have been noticed in other 'knowledge work' professions, such as accountancy, suggesting that in industries where greater worker autonomy is evident, workers have extended their autonomy to learning options. My research on IT engineers suggested that the ability to be 'discerning' was not synonymous with age, but experience.

Unfortunately, 'experience' is not a simple attribute to measure. Using 'time in profession' as a proxy does not guarantee that professional experience has been maintained or enhanced. For roles where regular re-certification is not required, such a proxy may be a pragmatic, interim solution. A second problem is that experience does not always coincide neatly with chronological age brackets. An older worker who re-joins the labour market, or moves into a new field, will not possess the same experience as a similarly-aged colleague who has spent many years in the industry. This makes the use of cohort groupings like 'baby boomers' less helpful when looking at workplace learning.

Leaving experience to one side, and returning to the 'discerning' learning behaviour of older workers, it can inadvertently contribute to their negative portrayal. For example, it was recently reported in The Times that older workers were a 'drag on productivity'. The absence of a formal training system in many firms was cited as the major reason for this. However, the research examined data from a survey which did not include questions to capture the differences in learning behaviour outlined above. Had it done so, it may have resulted in a more nuanced statement regarding the impact of employing older workers.

Recognition of learning via the 'discerning' approach is absent from most surveys. Qualifications obtained, or courses completed, are often used as a proxy for learning activity. The learner who has completed only the elements that were relevant to them, but not the full qualification or course, will not be captured by the survey. This renders invisible the learning that has been done as the individual will be recorded as not having engaged in any learning in the given period. As the learners applying the 'discerning' approach are often the older ones, this can accidentally prolong the negative stereotype of less learning.

So, returning to the question asked at the outset: is age a good way to determine workplace learning behaviour? Well, although 'age' may be readily available to employers, this number alone is not sufficient. The example of the IT engineers shows that although there are considerable similarities in the approach to workplace learning across ages, there are differences too. The main ones highlighted here being the lower importance placed on acquisition of qualifications per se and the more discerning attitude shown towards what is learned. These differences are not solely related to chronological age. There are other factors to consider such as the multi-faceted aspects of 'age' and the issue of 'experience'. Plus what constitutes 'old' and 'experienced' in different trades and professions.

In short, to better support the workplace learning of older employees a good start would be to discontinue the 'bean-counting' of courses attended and qualifications obtained. We should give greater recognition to the socially-situated 'participative' forms of learning, and acknowledge the 'discerning' approach. Above all, we must not base decisions on raw numbers - and this includes those on someone's latest birthday card!

Dr Kath Atkinson is currently conducting further research into workplace learning and age.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.