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Pilita Clark: What we get wrong about ageing and work

There is no consistent evidence that older workers are any less productive than their younger counterparts

After Martin Amis died, newspapers filled with reminders of the celebrated writer’s more memorable thoughts.

In 2021, he told the Guardian he had been finding it hard to finish things during the pandemic but doubted this was due to Covid. “It’s just age,” he said. “In the old days it came quicker, the prose. Now it’s a battle.”

Amis was 71 at the time, but the number of people who mentioned this quote to me last week suggests his words resonate well beyond his own generation.

And they would. In an age of rampant ageism, Amis was admitting the inadmissible: when we get older we are not always as good at our jobs as we used to be.


This is a depressing thought on many levels, not least because it is not entirely true. We do deteriorate with age, but not always in the ways that are widely imagined.

In fact, we get a lot of things wrong about ageing and work, which is odd considering there are now more elderly people than young children on the planet for the first time in recorded history.

For a start, we assume older people are more feeble than they are.

Parts of the brain that deal with things like working memory may degrade in middle age, but overall age-related cognitive decline is not typically pronounced until you reach at least 70, and only 5 per cent of people over 65 show signs of cognitive impairment.

Those figures come from research compiled in a pre-pandemic report for the British Medical Association that was done to help doctors address a UK workforce with more people over the age of 50 than ever before.

I speak here of the strivers who have enjoyed years of professional achievement and are dismayed to discover their career is stalling

It showed that older workers’ hearing, sight and muscle strength may not be what they were. But for most people in their 60s, any impairment in mental ability and mental agility is “slight”, and the effects are offset by experience and established skills. In fact, a capacity to process complex problems and some types of language ability can improve.

There is no consistent evidence that older workers are any less productive than younger ones either. Rather, the report said: “The main finding is that healthy older people perform equally as well as their younger counterparts.”

In other words, a lot of assumptions about older workers are misplaced.

There is another misunderstanding about age and work that is fuelled by some older workers themselves – including many who may be reading this article.

I speak here of the strivers who have enjoyed years of professional achievement and are dismayed to discover their career is stalling, or has failed to bring the satisfaction they expected.

As many of these workers would say themselves, they do not deserve vats of sympathy. They have done a lot better than others. But they are emblematic of a wider dilemma: professional decline comes sooner than expected and therefore requires more careful management for more workers than is generally assumed.

This is not a modern corporate affliction. It has long fed some of our greatest literature. As the British theatre director, Nicholas Hytner, said of Henrik Ibsen not long ago, a lot of the great Norwegian’s late plays are about a sense of “the high-functioning, high-achieving male looking back on his life and, despite the depth of achievement, feeling at some deep level that he’s messed up”.

Yet the dilemma persists. It is no accident that one of the big non-fiction best-sellers in the United States last year was, a book about dealing with professional decline, by Harvard’s Arthur Brooks.

It is full of data about how soon people go downhill in an assortment of fields. Investment advisers peak between the ages of 36 and 40 and chemists at 46. For writers, it’s a more encouraging range of between 40 and 55, which is similar to that for mail sorters.

Brooks thinks the answer lies in recognising the inevitable and shifting to work that relies less on “fluid intelligence”, or raw smarts, and more on the “crystallised intelligence”, or wisdom, gained later in life.

He is doubtless right. And as with so much else about ageing and work, the first thing to do is figure out the difference between perception and reality. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023