In an economic downturn, industries that lay off their older workers or hustle them into early retirement to clear the ranks for younger and cheaper employees may end up regretting the loss. In a recent study, older air traffic controllers headed off mid-air collisions as well as younger controllers, using experience to compensate for age-related declines in mental sharpness.
A consistent observation in the study of aging and cognition is the decline in many perceptual and cognitive abilities as we age. However, another body of literature suggests that a byproduct of age is experience, which can compensate for the impact of aging on complex skills.
In a study funded by the National Institute on Aging, Ashley Nunes, PhD (now with CSSI Inc.) and Arthur Kramer, PhD of the University of Illinois, sought to determine whether decades-old mandatory retirement policies are justified. They evaluated 36 licensed air traffic controllers and 36 non-controllers, with 18 older and 18 younger adults per group. Older controllers were on average 57 years old, with an average of 34 years of experience. Younger controllers were on average 24 years old, with an average of nearly two years on the job. Non-controllers were matched for age and education, to eliminate one variable confounding the other.
Participants completed a comprehensive battery of cognitive and simulated air traffic control tasks, the latter of which included conflict detection (of two planes on course to collide), conflict resolution (a more complicated variation in which controllers have to issue instructions to head off collisions), vectoring (a dynamic simulation requiring controllers to navigate aircraft within a specific airspace to reach a destination without any conflicts), and airspace management (a more complicated variation of vectoring, managing traffic flow along different airways through a specified sector of airspace).
On most lab tests of cognitive processes such as inhibitory control, task switching, visual spatial processing, working memory and processing speed, the authors observed predictable age-related declines among all groups. However, on the simulations, experience helped the older controllers to compensate to a significant degree for age-related declines, especially in their performance of the more complex simulations.
“Older controllers performed quite well on the air traffic control tasks,” the authors wrote, adding that the benefit of experience was greatest when it came to solving the most complex simulated air traffic problems.
Older controllers also issued fewer commands than younger controllers, while achieving the same results. According to the researchers, older controllers acted “in a more measured fashion to achieve performance that rivals that of their younger counterparts, who exhibited better cognitive ability.”
The evidence that experience triumphs over the normal changes of aging could help to overturn myths about older workers that are contributing to the draining of the pool of skilled professionals.
This study will surely resonate with the 155 survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 which was skillfully glided onto the Hudson River by 57 year-old Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III earlier this year.
Nunes, A. & Kramer, A. F. (2009). Experience-Based Mitigation of Age-Related Performance Declines: Evidence From Air Traffic Control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15, 12-24.
Full text of the article is available here.