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Bias | Performance

The secret to your talent plan? Older applicants

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With high job turnover in the last few years and no sign of it slowing down, many talent leaders are noticing a new trend as they comb through resumes: the applicant pool is getting older.

Indeed, the age of applicants has climbed 20% to 25% in the last year, leading the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to forecast that the number of people 75 and older in the workforce will grow nearly 97% by 2030. That’s good news for organizations because according to new research, an older workforce may be a secret to success.

A shifting applicant pool

As careers and life spans get longer, more people will have 60-year careers. At the same time, few baby boomers have tapped into their Social Security benefits, and hybrid work has triggered “returnship” or unretirement programs, luring experienced workers toward vacated or long-unfilled positions. And the strain of rising inflation and fluctuating retirement accounts are likely increasing the need for older individuals to put their resumes back in the market.

Despite their attempts, however, older applicants may not be getting the responses they want. For one, job postings that highlight the need for “digital natives” or “energetic” applicants, may discourage them from applying. Even if an older candidate decides to apply, they tend to receive fewer callbacks and may be upwards of 3 times less likely to be selected for an interview than their younger counterparts with comparable qualifications. And it’s not lost on hiring managers that individuals with extensive experience are more likely to request higher compensation, meaning some firms may combat budgetary constraints by moving toward “juniorization,” or hiring those with fewer years under their belts.

But before you dismiss the next over-60 application, you may want to consider new research on the cognitive skills of older individuals. In a recent study published by Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of Lisbon struck down a long-held myth that all mental skills decline with age. In the study, participants ages 58-96 were tested on three tasks that focused on their levels of alertness, or being highly aware and able to quickly react to changes in their surroundings; orienting attention, the ability to accurately shift focus to a new task; and executive inhibition, the ability to shut out competing inputs or distractions. The study found that while aging individuals displayed a decline in alertness, their abilities to orient and display executive inhibition improved as they got older.

Translating this to the workplace: As your employees juggle multiple projects on a day-to-day basis, your over-60 employees will be able to hone their attention on the most important task at hand and not be swayed or distracted by co-workers or tasks that can wait until tomorrow.

Making sense of the science

There’s no arguing that as we age, general physiological changes occur that lead to a natural decline in some skills, one of which is the speed at which our brain cells communicate information. So it isn’t surprising that some of our abilities, such as alertness, would decline. Alertness is thought to be reliant on a state of vigilance in the brain, requiring sustained amounts of energy through resource allocation.

But the aforementioned study showed that even though some abilities decline with age, others improve — something that isn’t often highlighted in research regarding age and cognitive abilities. The ability to orient attention to new incoming information involves parietal brain areas and frontal eye fields, while the ability to selectively ignore distractors requires the engagement of the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This makes sense when considering these frontal brain regions often don’t reach full maturity until we’re in our 20s. In fact, network connections that support self-regulation and executive function may continue to mature throughout life. Outside of general maturation of the neural connections, these abilities are thought to be sensitive to experience and training, such as the experience that comes with age.

Using fresh eyes on older applicants

To reap the benefits of an aging applicant pool, leaders can start by understanding the role bias plays in decision-making. We say it often: If you have a brain, you have bias. Biases act as mental shortcuts we take to easily drive our decisions and actions in real time. In the best cases, biases can save our lives. At worst, they can lead to decisions that exclude potential team members or lead us to miss the next applicant.

In the case of ageism, three types of biases are at play:

  • Similarity bias, the tendency to view people who look, think, and in this case, are aged similar to who you typically hire more favorably than those who don’t.
  • Experience bias, the belief that how we have experienced the world is inherently truer than the way someone else has. An example of this bias is using the same job posting with wording that tends to be geared toward younger generations because it has “always worked in the past.”
  • Safety bias, the tendency to overemphasize negative outcomes, which leads us to avoid risky decisions, such as giving an interview to a whole new subset of applicants out of your typical age range.

Once you’ve identified these biases, it’s easier to take concrete action and start actively recruiting older applicants. Start by looking at the job description. The words you use can be very revealing to candidates. Removing requirements of GPA or SAT scores, as well as text like “all meals included,” can open the possibility for individuals at all stages of their career. Knowing now that some skills improve with age, next time you wade through that applicant pool, you may discover that an at-the-surface “overqualified” or “non-energetic” individual could dive right into a position that calls for a focused individual who thrives under pressure. After all, age is just a number.

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