No one wants to be ageist. But given the almost quarter-century age gap between presidential contenders Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, it’s impossible not to consider the role of age in performing one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
If Rubio, 43, gets elected president next year, the Florida senator will be among the youngest to ever hold the office—and if Clinton, 67, gets the nod, she’ll be among the oldest. But who has the advantage? Does youthful energy trump experience, or the other way around?
According to productivity experts, Ms. Clinton has the edge. Sorry, youngs.
Older workers make fewer serious mistakes
True, older workers are often considered by prospective employers as curmudgeonly, unwilling to embrace new ideas, and expensive—but studies have shown they’re a wise investment. For example, researchers from the University of Mannheim found that in a study of Mercedes assembly line workers, older people made fewer serious mistakes than their younger counterparts.
Chalk up one for experience. But they aren’t alone in that finding.
Research from The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, also found that workers between the ages of 60 and 74 were more productive on average than younger workers.
“It’s absolutely reasonable to think that if a workforce ages productivity should decline,” said economist Gary Burtless, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Institute who used funding from the Social Security Administration to look at whether an aging workforce was negatively affecting worker production over the past quarter century. “What the data show is that ‘no’ older workers aren’t negatively effecting productivity. They’re actually very productive.”
Older workers are more consistent than younger workers
The belief some have that older workers are less productive may be due to beliefs that the aged are less healthy, aren’t up-to-date on technical or cultural knowledge, and are overall more fragile.
“Some of these perceptions are accurate because as people age we know they are more prone to problems,” said Burtless, citing age-related declines in mobility, hearing, and vision, for example. “But that doesn’t describe the older people who are remaining in the workforce, on average.”
While getting older does bring with it some of those inevitable physical changes, the cognitive performance of older adults, ages 65 to 80, is pretty sharp. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, both day-to-day and within-day variability in cognitive performance were lower in older adults compared to younger adults, according to findings from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
The researchers believe that consistency could be due to a higher motivation level, mood stability, and the fact they may have learned strategies to solve specific tasks.
Education also plays a role. The Brookings’ study found that much of the seeming success in productivity among older workers can be directly attributed to their higher levels of schooling, generally college or advanced degrees.
Most older workers enjoy their jobs
But you also can’t discount the very simple fact most older workers "really enjoy what they do,” says Burtless. And it’s that enjoyment that also helps boost productivity.
Indeed, there are some surveys and studies showing older workers may be the most satisfied with their jobs and the most engaged, bringing their years of experience and strong attention to detail to the workplace—all of which can help contribute to productivity, said Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., co-director of the Boston College Center for Aging & Work. “Many older people find a lot of meaning in their work,” says James. “And they are physically and cognitively attached to it.”
It’s also important to know that gerontologists—doctors who specialize in the treatment of older people—distinguish between the so-called “young-old” adults in their 60s to mid-to-late 70s and the “old-old adults,” age 80 and beyond, said Carolyn Aldwin, Ph.D., director of Oregon State University’s Center for Healthy Aging Research..
“Young-old adults tend to be relatively healthy and financially secure, with disability rates rising in the late 70s and 80s,” she told Fusion.
In her research, Aldwin, who developed a stress measure for people in middle and later life, has found older adults are less likely to report daily stressors compared to middle-aged or younger adults. She and her colleagues have also shown that in the absence of dementia, older adults were just as effective copers as were younger adults. And surprisingly, they may also be more efficient in how they deal with stressors, she says.
But just as many wines don’t get better with age, neither does every person. And that’s an important concept to understand, said Aldwin.
However, “it is likely that an older presidential candidate would have more experience than a middle-aged one, and might be both more efficient in how he or she solves problems,” said Aldwin. An older person might also be more likely to take the long view, “and understand that forging good interpersonal relationships is more important in the long run than in winning every battle,” she added.
And at the end of a workday, it’s those good personal relationships—not age—that may be the real key to the productivity over the course of a career. Or a presidency.
Joan Raymond is a freelance health and medical reporter who has written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and other outlets, She is way too productive to worry about age.