Why Companies Need All the Middle-Aged Brains They Can Get

Neurological changes that come with middle age make mature workers extremely valuable

by Gary Drevitch • Next Avenue
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

Young workers need jobs to launch their careers. Older workers need jobs to extend theirs. So when employers have new positions to fill, they're torn between the high value of experienced workers and the low cost of new staffers.
 
One argument traditionally made in favor of younger employees is that while they can make decisions and acquire new skills more quickly, older workers' minds inevitably experience some decline. But new research into the cognitive abilities of people in middle age and beyond argues strongly against casting them aside.
 
Barbara Strauch, deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking, 2010), cites large-scale longitudinal studies completed in recent decades, as well as newly detailed scans of middle-aged (and older) brains, as proof that many of our expectations about mental decline in middle age are just false.

In the Workplace, Brains vs. Bias
“We used to think we lost 30 percent of our brain cells” as we aged, Strauch says, “but now we can watch living brains and count neurons in new and more exact ways, and we can see that some neurochemicals decline, but in general our brains stay pretty intact. We don’t see a huge drop-off in healthy brains throughout our lives.”
 
Such findings, Strauch says, "are shocking and really new and also quite encouraging." Not only do our brains retain their cognitive abilities, she says, but in many ways they've been found to be superior to younger brains, especially in areas valuable to the workplace, like judging character, considering a broad range of opinions, and evaluating the potential ramifications of decisions. “Logical reasoning increases as we age beyond our 20s because the brain continues to develop and build connections,” Strauch explains. "The physical ability to size up a situation and the experience to make a judgment increases from 40 to 65.

Photo courtesy of M. Thatcher/Shutterstock.com

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