The Speed of the Modern Workforce

Now here’s an interesting thing. New people on the job take longer to do basic tasks. At least they seem to. Where you may dispatch the chore in swift and ready strokes, they appear to be lagging further behind in the movement of time.

It’s hard to remember you were that person once. Experienced workers have forgotten the effort needed to learn new tasks long ago, the halting nature of the first time doing it, the uncertainty of setting forth. Just as you won’t roller skate like a pro without practice, you don’t get smooth at a job until you’ve done it awhile.

All of which puts the lie to the stereotype of old workers being slower in performance. They generally aren’t. The famous Cogito study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, in 2010, joined numerous others in agreement that cognitive performance can be significantly improved through practice and training up to very old age, and these improvements can last many years.

What slows down is the speed at which the mind juggles symbols. A common test of mental processing speed, called a digit symbol substitution test, typically finds that the speed at which minds translate symbols into numbers according to a code slows with age, though no one knows exactly why. It has nothing to do with education, cognitive ability, memory, or any other mental function. And let’s not congratulate all the upstart 25-year-olds for their quickness: This mental slowing begins around age 20.

But it seems all disadvantages have a flip side, and aging has a big one. Where older workers may lack lightning agility, they profess noteworthy compensations: steadiness, experience, focus, resourcefulness, grace, elegance—all words to denote the quality of being rock-solid and smooth in an uncomfortably lurching world.

Older workers usually possess the rich experience needed for nimble problem solving. A famous study of older and younger typists determined that older typists produced just as many typed words as younger ones, though they typed more slowly, probably because their experience made them smoother. Workers often organize, conceptualize and write better as they mature.

Then, too, general knowledge and vocabulary frequently increase with age, and the “crystallized intelligence” of accumulated knowledge, as psychologists call it, is augmented by the “fluid intelligence” of new problem solving and fresh experience.

All of which means that staying current and acute can certainly be done, though complacency in learning and a fear of challenge will diminish you far sooner than your number of years on the planet.

Deepening and broadening of your existing fund of experience will serve you better than a green start in a new field. And that in turn requires that you stay interested and involved – not distracted. Now about the weather….

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