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The Boomer Bulletin - 2014
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Can an “Old Dog” Learn New Tricks?

Posted By Scott Morrill, Multimedia Editor & Producer, Boomer Consulting, Inc., Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Old sayings are often based on some degree of truth.  I recently heard someone dismiss an older gentleman’s tech-savviness with the old saying "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and I realized that its use betrayed an attitude of discrimination based on age.  Curious, I started a little research and I found out that old dogs actually can learn new tricks.  So if there’s any truth in the saying, perhaps it’s embedded within the first three words – "you can’t teach…”

Since I’m an old dog (at least in the eyes of most of my co-workers), I want to take this opportunity to espouse that first, older workers can learn new tricks; second, there are many advantages to investing in older workers; and third, the key to the "teaching” might be in the method.

It’s surprisingly easy to debunk the myth that old dogs can’t learn new tricks.  In fact, according to Discovery.com, the Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters BUSTED the myth by training two 7-year-old Alaskan Malamutes six commands within four days.  I’ve had my dog for six years and she’ll "come” and "sit” for me – as long as I have something she wants.  She’s probably a better teacher than I am because she can clearly communicate to me that she wants me to play tug-of-war instead of "fetch”.  But I digress.  This article isn’t really about dogs.

Science is apparently proving that humans can continue to learn.  If you’re into this kind of detail, read the next couple of paragraphs.  If you don’t really care then skip ahead to see why this is an important topic for you.

Janice Wood, Associate News Editor at PsychCentral®, reports on a paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience from Dartmouth University graduate student Alex Schelgel about research that proves that the brain’s white matter undergoes a structural change during the learning process:

"This flies in the face of all these traditional views that all structural development happens in infancy, early in childhood,” Schlegel said. "Now that we actually do have tools to watch a brain change, we are discovering that in many cases the brain can be just as malleable as an adult as it is when you are a child or an adolescent.”

Julie Steenhuysen, U.S. health and science correspondent for Reuters, reports about the largest study ever done on cognitive training, published January 2014 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society:

"Older adults who underwent a brief course of brain exercises saw improvements in reasoning skills and processing speed that could be detected as long as 10 years after the course ended…”

"Among those given training in reasoning strategies, 73.6 percent were still performing above their pre-trial baseline level, compared with 61.7 percent of those who received no training and were only benefiting from practice on the test.”

"The effect was even greater in processing speed. Among the training group, 70.7 percent of participants were performing at or above their baseline level, compared with 48.8 percent of those in the control group.”

So if you can accept that older workers can learn new tricks, why could it be important to you?

In a diverse world it pays to have a diverse workforce.  Older workers often have better resources and bring important connections to the job.  Their experience can result in higher quality work with fewer major errors.  Experienced workers are perhaps more realistic about consequence and may give more importance to a higher sense of morality.  They may have more established "roots” and therefore a higher commitment level.  Broader experience and expertise can also contribute to creativity.

Most importantly, older workers have a demonstrated potential to be more successful.  Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Rose Park Advisors and the author of Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream, reports in a Harvard Business Review blog:

"Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. The vast majority — 75 percent — have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than 10 years when they create their startup,” says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures.  Meanwhile, data from the Kauffman Foundation indicates the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34.”

So if old dogs can learn new tricks, is there a difficulty in teaching new tricks?  I believe so.

I think I know a ton more today than I did 20 years ago.  I doubt I could still pass a final from any of the classes I took in college but I’m passing daily tests on subjects like politics, home ownership, and parenting.  However, when it comes to learning new tricks, I know I possess a few barriers that have developed as I’ve aged.

First, my priorities now revolve around my family.  At this point in my life my daughter still wants to do things with me.  That’s an awful valuable asset to ask me to trade.

Second, I don’t automatically believe that I’m being taught the truth.  Some things that were taught to me as truth in the past have now been proven to be incorrect.  I’ve also seen enough change in my life that I don’t automatically believe the latest is always the greatest.  I’m sometimes looking for the fine print while you’re trying to sell to me.

Third, change is usually uncomfortable.  I’m so far behind on so many of life’s projects that taking the time to learn new techniques is a sacrifice.  Even though I know it’s better for me in the long run, sometimes I have to just keep plugging along because other people are depending on me.

So I’m not saying I’m unwilling or don’t want to learn new tricks.  In fact, I have a bit of a legacy to uphold.  My paternal grandfather earned his private pilot’s license and his scuba diving certification in the early 1970’s.  He was born in 1901.

I’m just saying there are different barriers to learning as an older worker.  Someone who understands change management will be more likely to reach me.

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