The Pareto Principle soaked into the fabric of modern society. Everyone knows it’s about the 80/20 disparity. But how did it start? How does it apply to real-life situations?
The catchphrase of 2019, “OK Boomer,” has relit an ongoing conflict between younger and older generations.
Truth is, though, stereotyped perceptions of different generations have always existed in every area of life. Perhaps more so than elsewhere, in the workplace.
At ResumeLab, we decided to look into the most common stereotypes about older workers. And, as any thorough researcher would do, we started with a literature review.
According to the research papers we examined, the popular stereotype is that workers over the age of 55:
- Aren’t motivated
- Don’t participate in extra training or career development programs
- Are resistant to change
- Aren’t as productive as younger workers
- Don’t identify themselves with companies they work for
- Are distrustful of other people
- Have poor health
- Will let their family lives get in the way of work
- Won’t share their knowledge
- Are more expensive to hire than younger candidates
- Will leave the job sooner than their younger colleagues.
But we thought…
Come on, it can’t be the case in 2020! No way people still pigeonhole older employees like that.
Do people really believe those? And how do the stereotypes fare against hard data? We surveyed 929 Americans and conducted an extensive literature review to find out. You’ll see what we learned below.
The Five Stereotypes That Still Prevail...
Turns out Americans still firmly believe in five of the usually-mentioned stereotypes:
1. 55% of respondents believe older workers are more resistant to change than their younger colleagues
Only 19% didn’t think it was the case.
Amongst people under the age of 55, 57% believed the claim was true compared to just 36% of the respondents 55 or older.
Healthcare was the sector in which most people (58%) thought older workers indeed were bad at coping with changes.
Is there any scientific evidence in favor of or against this claim? Turns out, there is… And the stereotype has nothing to do with reality.
According to a 2012 study, workers over the age of 55 are actually more likely to participate in organizational change efforts, as well as implement new, innovative solutions in their workplace.
2. 49% agreed older workers are not as healthy as younger employees
This one seems almost intuitive, doesn’t it?
Just 19% of our respondents disagreed.
It was also the stereotype most-commonly accepted by older workers themselves: 43% of people aged >55 thought it was the case (28% disagreed).
The older you get, the more health problems you have, simple as that… Or is it?
Interestingly, the demographic least likely to agree with this claim (41%) were healthcare workers. Turns out they know what they’re talking about.
While it’s true that high blood pressure can cause serious cardiovascular disease, the onset of such is likely to occur in people who have already retired.
Another interesting finding to debunk the claim: according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, workers over the age of 55 take less time off sick compared to younger workers.
3. 45% of respondents believe older workers are less interested in additional training or career development
27% disagreed with the claim.
This one saw a substantial discrepancy between the two major age groups in question: 51% of people younger than 55 think it’s the case, compared to only 31% of people 55 or older.
The two industries in which the stereotype is most common are Manufacturing (53% of respondents agreed) and Software and IT (52%).
On the other side of the spectrum, people working in Education or Healthcare were the least likely to agree with the statement: 39% and 37%, respectively, thought it was the case.
And what are the facts?
While the data does support the legitimacy of this stereotype, let’s note that older employees are likely senior in the corporate hierarchy. It might be the case that they just don’t need extra training as much as their juniors.
4. 41% believe older workers look down on younger colleagues
25% think otherwise. And the differences between age groups are where it gets interesting:
- 58% of people aged 24 or younger think their 55+ colleagues look down on younger employees.
- 50% of people aged 25–38 think so.
- 41% of people aged 39–54.
- Only 26% of people over 55 (42% disagreed).
Interestingly, this claim saw the largest percentage difference in answers between older and younger workers.
And while the suspects themselves deny that, our data supports the stereotype: the fact that most young people agreed with it in itself proves its legitimacy.
On the other hand, a 2009 University of Texas study suggests that older workers are more “friendly, honest, and trustworthy” than younger colleagues. Still… While I strongly oppose any signs of ageism, I think our data calls for older workers to reevaluate their behaviors towards the youngest of their colleagues.
5. 40% of respondents believe older workers are more expensive to hire and retain
25% don’t think it’s the case.
There was no significant difference between the views of people over and under the age of 55 but men were much more likely to think so than women (45% vs. 33% respectively).
Interestingly, in an open-ended question we asked our respondents what they thought was the main advantage younger workers had over older employees.
Most of their answers focused on the economic factor. Here are a few examples:
- If you’re in your early 20s, your more likely to get hired because the company doesn't feel they need to give you a full-time contract or various benefits like they do older people.
- Young employees are happy if they get paid anything. The job, for them, is mainly a place to learn new skills.
- Less experience usually equals lower starting wages so hiring younger employees is a smart move from the budget perspective.
Truth is, workers over the age of 55 are indeed more expensive to hire and retain than younger people—but the difference is very small.
“Stereotypes” Most of Us Reject
So far, we’ve discussed (and fact-checked) older worker stereotypes that most Americans believe in. The thing is, as our study proved, there are many stereotypes considered “popular” which in fact aren’t. Let’s have a look:
- Older workers don’t like to share their knowledge and experience
- 43% of Americans disagree
- 29% agree
- Older workers don’t identify themselves with the companies they work for
- 40% disagree
- 30% agree
- Older workers aren’t as motivated as younger workers
- 39% disagree
- 34% agree
- Older workers are less productive
- 38% disagree
- 30% agree
- Older workers will let their family lives get in the way of work
- 38% disagree
- 30% agree
The one claim where the ratio of “agree” and “disagree” was equal (34% each) was that older workers are likely to work at their companies for a shorter period of time than younger workers.
And guess what? Whether or not they will largely depends on how widespread the stereotypes are in a given workplace—
Who’s Most Guilty of Prejudice?
As the last step in our study, we analyzed cumulative responses to all stereotypical claims about older workers to identify who tends to agree with those and who rejects them.
We found that the industries in which older workers are viewed most stereotypically are:
- Manufacturing (on average, 45% of respondents agreed with stereotypical claims)
- Software and IT (42%)
- Business and Finance (42%)
Sectors least likely to perpetuate age-based stereotypes are:
- Healthcare (32% of respondents agreed with the stereotypes)
- Education (36%)
Unsurprisingly, people below the age of 55 tend to believe age-based stereotypes more often than those 55 or older (41% vs. 30%).
Finally, more men (41%) than women (32%) agree with older worker stereotypes.
The general perception of older workers is still slightly stereotypical: on average, 37% of respondents agreed with older worker stereotypes while 31% disagreed.
The 5 most common stereotypes about older workers are:
- Older workers are more resistant to change than their younger colleagues.
- Older workers are not as healthy as younger employees.
- Older workers are less interested in additional training or career development.
- Older workers look down on younger colleagues.
- Older workers are more expensive to hire and retain.
That said, we no longer trust all stereotypes described as “popular” in most research papers.
The stereotypes Americans don’t actually believe in are that older employees:
- Don’t like to share their knowledge and experience
- Don’t identify themselves with the companies they work for
- Aren’t as motivated as younger workers
- Are less productive
- Will let their family lives get in the way of work.
What about you? Do you think your workplace challenges or reinforces typical age-related clichés? What do you think we can do to further reduce the negative impact of ageist stereotypes on the work lives of 55+ colleagues? Let me know in the comments, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
Methodology and Limitations
For this study, we collected answers from 929 American respondents via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 59% males and 41% females. 9% of respondents were 24 or younger, 41% aged 25–38, 15% aged 39–54, and 35% 55 or older.
Given the gender and age makeup of our large sample, the study can be generalized to the entire population.
To help ensure that respondents took our survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer to an attention-check question.
This self-report study investigated whether or not Americans agree with commonly referenced stereotypes about people 55 or older in the workplace. Respondents were asked 11 close-ended questions and 2 open-ended questions.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/uncertain/unknown” not being presented.
As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias.
Fair Use Statement
Feel free to share our study! The graphics and content found here are available for noncommercial reuse. Just make sure to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.