By Laura Guillén

The world population is ageing at an unprecedented speed. In the workplace, age discrimination seems to be a serious concern. The American Association of Retired Persons has, for example, documented that in the United States, two out of every three workers over 40 have seen or experienced age discrimination at work. 

Due to age prejudice, older workers struggle to succeed in their careers. They are usually portrayed as less technologically intelligent and less productive than younger colleagues.

Moreover, they are judged by upper management as poorer performers and with less potential for promotion than younger employees.

Due to age prejudice, older workers struggle to succeed in their careers

Understanding what drives age stereotypes seems relevant to help organisations effectively manage age biases. My research colleague Florian Kunze (University of Konstanz) and I conducted a study on this question. We do so by bridging age literature with research on innovation.

Innovation and its ingredients

Innovation is considered key in today’s corporate world. Being innovative, original and creative are essential requirements for being successful at work.

In our research, we explored if negative age stereotypes can be explained through a decrease in innovative behaviour by older workers.

Age has been negatively related in previous studies to perceptions of being change-oriented, open-minded and ready for new experiences. However, is it true that older managers are less innovative?

Innovation is much more than creativity, or the capacity to generate new ideas. Experience and know-how (both aspects that older workers possess in high doses) have been identified as key ingredients for innovation in organisations.

This is because experienced workers have a more complete understanding of what is ground-breaking, appropriate and useful; and they can more easily gain the support needed to implement novel ideas.

Yet some people claim that with experience, people can become less interested in seeking new ways of approaching work challenges.

Experience can thus be an asset, or a liability that leads to routine, inertia and compliance. The question we explore in our research is when can older workers take advantage of their greater experience to innovate?

Our findings reveal that age does not invariably harm innovative behaviour

Our findings reveal that age does not invariably harm innovative behaviour. Collaboration is the antidote that counterbalances the negative consequences of age on innovative behaviour.

More specifically, our study shows that older workers that span intraorganisational boundaries, reach out and collaborate with employees from other departments (outside the focal teams in which they usually work) are assessed as much more innovative than those who do not collaborate with others.

Our research thus suggests that the greater experience of older workers can indeed boost their innovative potential, but only when they collaborate with others in their organisation.

So much so that collaboration, as we see in the study, enables older employees to reach innovative behaviour levels that are comparable to those of younger employees.

Collaboration enables older employees to reach innovative behaviour levels that are comparable to those of younger employees

This is in line with the innovation literature that has long dismantled the "myth of the lonely inventor" and has established that innovation is more likely to occur when employees with diverse experiences cooperate closely.

Collaborating across departments leads to numerous benefits for innovation, such as providing informational advantages and access to new ideas, and helps obtain the necessary social support and resources to implement novel ideas.     

Collaborating across departments leads to numerous benefits for innovation

Importantly, innovative behaviour by older workers who collaborate across departments is noticed and rewarded by upper management. Innovators are perceived as visionaries, ambitious, influential, capable and confident.

Thus, older workers who collaborate across their organisations are shielded from negative age stereotypical perceptions.

Our results show very clearly that only when interdepartmental collaboration is low are older workers punished with lower performance and promotability assessments (based on their reduced innovative behaviour).

Our study offers insights into how to promote age-friendly organisational practices. Organisations can, and must, promote collaboration across business areas and departments to fight against age discrimination and guarantee equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of age.

This article is based on research findings published in Human Resource Management.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.