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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wrinklies aren’t worth it

There was an article in The Sunday Times with the above title. You won’t find it on the newspaper’s web site, using that name, since it has magically changed to: “Ageing is an ugly business.” I guess somebody thought they had better tone down the sarcasm. Amusing.

The gist of the article is that people become less productive as they age, but are paid more, which is daft. Conclusion, age discrimination is OK. I am not going to get stuck into this argument, but I would like to point out the nasty habit of journalists selectively quoting academic research .

I suspect the journalist (Emma Duncan) did a quick scan of the articles, selected the bits that she thought supported her arguments and ignored the rest.

The two papers she quotes are: “When does age-related cognitive decline begin” by Timothy Salthouse. The paper does indeed suggest that cognitive abilities start declining from our mid- twenties onwards. What it doesn’t deduce is the extent to which the rate of decline is relevant to how people complete their work related tasks. It most certainly doesn’t make any attempt to balance the rate of decline with the amassing of experience that results from ageing.

The other paper is: Age and Individual Productivity – a literature survey. A few things about this study. Firstly it is old – August 2003 – and a lot of the research that it quotes dates back to the early 1990s. A lot has happened since then.

Secondly, it is what is says, a literature survey, not a research study. For instance, the journalist quotes one of the research studies that studied the output of jazz musicians, painters and novelists in the 20th century and found that male musicians peaked at 30 and male painters peaked at 40.

From this rather abstract bit of research Ms Duncan makes the mental leap and concludes: “Older workers are not as useful as younger ones. Discriminating against them therefore seems perfectly reasonable to me.”

This is a nasty example of lazy journalism portraying itself as a serious article. Not good.

There is an article to be written on this subject but my guess is Ms Duncan is not the person to do it. Dick Stroud

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