How to improve work performance in people over 40?
The 2 great challenges of the labor market: Digital divide and population aging
According to this report of the National Institute of Statistics, if current population trends are maintained, the Spanish population will continue to age in the following years. The share of the population over the age of 65, which is currently 18.7% of the overall population, will be 25.6% in 2031 and 34.6% in 2066.
In addition, the dependence rate (ratio between the percentages of the population under the age of 16 and over 64, and the population within the age group 16-64 years), that is currently 53.3%, will increase to 62.2% in 2031, and will reach 87.7% in 2066. This situation is not exclusive to Spain: the inverted population pyramid is one of the great social challenges faced by developed countries.
All European countries have implemented policies to delay retirement age, and the majority has adopted retirement at the age of 67. However, the European Central Bank indicates that it might be necessary to delay the retirement age even further.
The digital and cognitive divides in employees aged over 40
The digital transformation that our society is experiencing originates a deep change in professional development and in the labor market. New technologies and applications start to impose new ways of working and living. On one hand, people face multi-tasking scenarios on a regular basis at work, where it is more difficult to manage interruptions and stay focused, with usually short breaks, and new digital tools setting goals and measuring the annual performance. On the other hand, there is a work-life connection that constrains the work life balance (easily handled by millennials) and modifies routines and free time activities. Pressure is added to personal and professional aspects of life: how to hack productivity towards the achievement of goals, and how to manage time at work and at home (including quality time spent with family) towards effectiveness (no “wasted time”).
Experts in human resources predict that in the next years, more than 50% of current occupations will become obsolete. Artificial intelligence will enable machines to carry out many of the repetitive tasks associated with current occupations (learn more about artificial intelligence and emotions), and the only occupations that will survive will be those requiring complex tasks that rely on high cognitive capabilities and creative and emotional intelligence (read the OIT report).
For individuals aged over 40, the situation can be very complicated; in addition to the digital divide, there is the so-called cognitive divide. Cognitive decline starts after 40 years old, and by the age of 65, approximately 5-20% of the population suffers from significant cognitive decline that affects the quality of life and work productivity.
Cognitive training to improve work performance
Currently, there is still no cure for mild cognitive decline, and all efforts have been focusing on delaying and slowing down such decline to a minimum. The fight against cognitive decline includes key aspects such as continued education, regular practice of physical exercise, balanced diet, and effective cognitive training.
But what is cognitive training? It refers to training the cognitive capabilities or abilities, which are a set of processes that have the general objective of processing the information received by our brain. Such training is fundamental to prevent cognitive decline and favor healthy aging.
Some of the cognitive capabilities most affected by aging are:
Memory: registers, stores and elicits different experiences, which could be ideas, images, events, etc.
Processing speed: establishes the relationship between cognitive execution and time elapsed. Enables the processing of information in a fast and automatic manner.
Executive control: integrates, organizes and coordinates other cognitive capabilities.
Orientation: awareness of oneself and of the surroundings, which includes personal, temporal and spatial orientations.
Good training of these cognitive capabilities can help maintain or enhance the competencies required to keep up with the labor market demands, which must be fulfilled by many workers in Spain and other countries due to delayed retirement ages.
Cognitive training techniques
Although it might seem paradoxical, advances in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are helping a higher number of people to access cognitive training programs. Note that cognitive training is not necessarily related to deterioration or a decline in abilities. More and more people are aware of their health, both physical and mental, and search for ways of keeping active, exercising the different cognitive functions that maintain mental agility. This should also be a concern for companies and firms, who can use cognitive training to enhance work performance and decrease leaves of absence. In many cases, these leaves of absence are caused by the cognitive overload of different occupations, and deeply affect older individuals and team members that remain in the workforce due to delayed retirement.
The well-known "brain training" games are one of the most popular ways to stimulate the brain, and include a variety of games that help improve cognitive skills such as riddles, puzzles, logic problems, sudokus, mental calculations, etc. These technologies are available for cell phones, computers or tablets and therefore can be used by almost any person, anywhere and anytime (even several times a day). Frequently there is an option to adjust the difficulty level, adapting to the individual abilities of the user, which is a key aspect when considering older adults. Although brain training is widely used and has been demonstrated to help participants improve the specific tasks carried out, there is still debate on whether brain training improves other cognitive and daily life tasks (read this study published in the distinguished Nature journal).
A new, promising technology is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Currently it is only applied by professionals, as it is based on the application of low-intensity currents directly to the brain. Although it has been demonstrated that its correct use can improve learning capability in complex tasks such as learning how to pilot a plane (read study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience), recently there have been questions raised regarding the improvement of cognitive capabilities (read study in Brain Stimulation). Several studies are being currently carried out to better understand this recent and controversial technique.
Finally, there are technological advances for cognitive training that emerge from other areas, such as neurotechnology and brain-computer interfaces (check the cognitive stimulation technology developed by Bitbrain). In these areas, new technology and procedures have arisen to measure brain activity along with modern neurofeedback procedures that enable the customization of interventions at individual brain levels. Measurable neuroplastic changes are obtained, which can lead to improvements in cognitive capabilities such as sustained attention, working memory and processing speed (read study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience). These promising technologies, besides providing evidence of brain changes, present cognitive assessments to measure the effects of these changes on cognitive capabilities. Although scientific studies have been carried out with satisfactory results regarding cognitive improvement in healthy and clinical populations, more studies continue to be carried out to validate these technologies.
In the following video, Dr. Javier Minguez explains the scientific and neurobiological bases of this cognitive rehabilitation technique.
In summary, training and maintaining our cognitive capabilities is more necessary than ever, due to the digital divide established because of new technologies and delayed retirement, so that we continue to achieve satisfactory work efficiency and performance. Rather than training these capabilities just because of work-related reasons, cognitive training should be a part of our day-to-day life, independently of cognitive decline. Prevention of decline and improvement of cognitive functions are fundamental for personal wellbeing, which is progressively more relevant as we age.
The Bitbrain team