We live in a world where we are expected to multi-task and invent new stuff all the time and where for that reason, the older you get, the less marketable you become. This is because, we tend to start off being bad at multi-tasking and we get worse at it as we age (and have to do more of it). While researching this article, for example, yours truly had to pick up two puppies one after the other, hold three separate conversations with her husband, and message a friend on Facebook, and help my husband with some chores. As a result, I had to really force myself to concentrate on the articles related to this post. A task that would have been easier for me if I were ten or even five years younger. That is because my working (or short-term) memory has taken a lot of abuse over the years.
Working memory is like the post-it note you make for yourself. So the more “stuff” you can fit on your “post-it” note inside your head, the better you’ll be able to multi-task. Think of it as jotting information down—the more you can jot down the more you will be able to remember or rewind when you need it. Further, a good working memory implies the ability to ignore distractions. In fact, the part of the brain responsible for storing short term memory is also the part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and inventions.
But a good working memory should not be confused with intelligence. Yes, there is strong correlation between the two. You’d expect that. Short-term memory is, after all, the basis of all learning. You need to be able to “jot down” information before you can remember it long-term and you need to be able to concentrate in order to do so. However, when we say “intelligence” we usually mean “book learning” and whether or not you are well-educated has more to do with your environment growing up than it does with your innate capacity to learn.
How much short term memory you are able to store, by contrast, is a measure of how much new knowledge we can potentially transfer into long-term memory, which is a fancy way of saying that our working memory capacity is a measure of how much we can learn as opposed to what we now know. It is also (not coincidentally) a good proxy for how well we are able to concentrate.
As you get older, your short-term memory gets worse. There is only so much you can cram onto that post-it. But learning new skills—and that includes anything from quilting to programming to learning a foreign language will help make your memory. The best way to boost your memory is by starting a hobby—like writing or photography. And the good news is that those hobbies are also a good way to earn extra money. Which, considering how many seniors live in poverty and thus have to keep working is a good thing.
The other good thing is that even though some types of cognition (e.g., short-term memory) does get worse with age, other types of cognition get better. Markedly so. The older we get, for instance, the better able we are to avoid major mistakes and relate better with people. In a world where teamwork is essential to success and where everyone is encourage to “try it out” and hence make potentially costly mistakes, it’s important to have a corrective presence—someone who can at least help minimize the costliness of those mistakes and hence keep the company from going under.
So while there are good reasons for hiring kids out of college (they do tend to be better at inventing stuff) there are also excellent business reasons to balance the hiring pool with older folks. Not out of any generosity but because 99 percent of all new inventions fail. That doesn’t mean a company should stop inventing; it just means that it may be a good idea to have someone around who can help make sure that the (likely) failure of that bright new idea is not catastrophic for the company.
And that someone is likely to be over 40 or even over 60.