Older Workers Are Not So Very DifferentThe June 2009 issue of the American Economic Review has a notable article by Gary Charness (University of California - Santa Barbara) and Marie-Claire Villeval (University of Lyon, France) that offers evidence that older workers, on average, are no worse than younger workers in terms of cooperativeness, competitiveness, and acceptance of risk. In fact, Charness's and Villeval's evidence suggests that older workers tend to perform better than younger workers when team cooperation is needed.
Charness and Villeval summarize their findings as follows:
Our results show first that seniors [defined as workers over 50] are more cooperative than juniors [defined as workers under 30], in the sense of making more contributions to team production. Second, we see no evidence at all that seniors are more risk averse in financial decisions. Third, seniors react to incentives and the competitiveness of the environment about as strongly as juniors. These three results are found in both the field and laboratory environments. Finally, we observe beneficial effects in the field from having working groups in which there is a mix of juniors and seniors, since working seniors increase their contribution when they know they are interacting with juniors; this suggests that there are indeed benefits in maintaining a work force with diversity in age. In addition, workers at the two firms in our study reveal a preference for being in age-heterogeneous groups. Overall, the implication is that it may not be wise to exclude seniors from the labor force; instead, defining additional short-term incentives near the end of a worker's career to retain and to motivate older workers may provide great benefits to society.Of course, this research comes with caveats concerning its generalizability (e.g., only workers at two French companies were involved in the field portion of the research). Nevertheless, the statistical significance Charness and Villeval found suggests organization managers would be well-advised to give open-minded consideration to the potential older workers have to make substantial contributions to meeting organizational goals.