Old workers continue to learn
The study found that older workers were
as willing and able to learn as their
younger colleagues.
Image: iStockphoto

Mature-aged workers are as keen as any others to learn and develop in the workplace but their opportunity to do so is sometimes stymied by negative age stereotypes, a QUT study has found.

A PhD study of 257 employees aged 18 - 65 working in local government and private hospital sectors by Megan Tones, from QUT's Faculty of Education, found that the stereotypes about older workers just didn't stand up to the findings from her research.

"The stereotype that older workers are not willing or able to learn was not found to be true," Ms Tones said.

"All workers', not just older workers', engagement in their learning and development at work is influenced by their perceptions of learning and development opportunities.

"Opportunities for learning and development at work were viewed in two different ways. The first was 'learning climate', which includes the perception people have of their learning and development opportunities; the way skills development is valued in the workplace; and the way workplace development opportunities are allocated.

"Age had no impact on willingness to engage with learning and development. Rather, I found age-related perceptions of workplace attitudes towards learning and development opportunities were the guiding factor.

"Any age difference is attributable to such things as the perception of opportunities and constraints on training by workers.

"For example, an organisation which encourages older workers to retire early or favours younger workers by, for example, advertising training opportunities only to younger people may send a negative message to older workers that their knowledge and skills are not valued or worth developing."

Ms Tones said the second factor influencing workers' beliefs about opportunities for learning and development was the complexity of their work in terms of the decision-making required and its status with regard to education qualifications.

"Where age was perceived to be a constraint to learning and development, it was most significant for older workers in lower status jobs," she said.

"I found that professionals and managers, however, reported that age didn't matter in terms of their being offered opportunities for learning and development - they seem to be offered them continuously throughout their careers.

"Complex work has the added advantage of enabling workers to learn and develop just through doing their job. In addition, complex work often requires continuous learning and development to remain up-to-date.

"For example, nurses or engineers might have to make a lot of complex decisions very quickly and on their own so they are learning and accruing experience as they work. Technology and knowledge grows and changes rapidly in such jobs, so there is an ongoing need for training as well.

"I found age-related differences in less complex work areas. In paraprofessional (diploma level) and lower level occupations, older workers reported the poorest perception of training and development opportunities.

"In contrast, younger workers in similar occupations perceived the highest opportunities - so organisations are investing a lot in younger workers in lower level roles. However, these jobs tend to have fewer educational requirements so there is often less need for ongoing training compared to professional or managerial levels jobs."

Ms Tones said her research suggested that, in view of the raising of the retirement age to 67, organisations could recognise age diversity as an opportunity for business and offer training to all workers.

"A positive learning climate where learning and upskilling is valued and promoted and age is not viewed in a stereotypical or discriminatory manner is the one most successful in engaging workers in learning and development," she said.

"Increasing the complexity of work for people in lower level occupations through job rotation or swapping or other methods may stimulate learning and development that would not otherwise occur.

"For workers, the message is to seek out and engage in learning and development opportunities offered by their workplace."

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.