Recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and OECD reveals a significant workforce trend. Over 38% of professionals are aged 55 and above, with 64.6% between the ages of 55 – 65 actively contributing to today’s workforce. Projections suggest a continued upward trend in these figures, indicating a notable increase in the 50+ workforce cohort in the foreseeable future.
Today, individuals within the age group of 40 – 50 are often viewed as “over the hill.” Due to the age-associated mental and physical health decline, the common misconception that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often reinforced by the biases associated with the aging population.
Allow us to agree to disagree.
Peak Performance Aging
The science of peak performance, is often referred to as “peak performance psychology” or “performance science.” This is a multidisciplinary field that explores the factors and principles that contribute to individuals and teams achieving their highest levels of performance and success in various domains, such as sports, business, academics, and the arts. This field draws from several disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, physiology, and sports science, to understand and optimize human performance.
New York Times bestselling author and Executive Director of Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler, has dedicated years of research to understand the contributing factors between mental/physical performance and aging. His research around neurosciences, neurodynamics, embodied cognition, and personal experience with winter sports has led to the idea that peak performance aging is achieved and maintained by “regularly engaging in challenging social and creative activities that demand dynamic and deliberate play and take place in novel outdoor environments.”
Although cognitive and physical abilities do diminish with time, the emboldening fact is that they can be improved through consistent use.
Gene Cohen, an American psychiatrist who pioneered research into gerontological mental health and is the first head of the Center on Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health, discovered the cognitive “superpowers of aging.” These become accessible to us in the second part of life; the most notable changes include an increase in intelligence, creativity, empathy, and wisdom.
To reach those superpowers, there are two major things we need to focus on together: physical and cognitive declines on a consistent basis.
From the cognitive perspective, the need is to focus on progression, which is the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state. Part of progression is the persistence of pattern recognition and repetitive pattern execution over time. It is the kind of redundancy the brain likes to build new neurological networks. Working on your craft is one way to restrain cognitive decline.
From the physical perspective, movement with a slight challenge, not only keeps physical deterioration at bay, it also boosts neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain, and angiogenesis, which is the birth of new blood vessels crucial for neuron creation.
Just like any aspect of human growth and development, three factors act as prerequisites to unlocking the superpowers. In your thirties, it involves resolving identity crises. In your forties, it’s about being in sync with and living your true identity. And in your fifties, it entails forgiving both yourself and others.
Kotler, being at the forefront of flow research, speaks to the benefit of flow state/triggers to keep physical and cognitive decline at bay.
Flow is a psychological state characterized by complete absorption and deep focus in an activity. When in a state of flow, individuals are fully engaged in what they are doing, to the point where they lose track of time and become oblivious to their surroundings. Flow is often associated with feelings of joy, fulfillment, and a sense of being “in the zone.”
This concept was popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who described flow as a mental state of optimal performance and a key factor in achieving happiness and satisfaction. Flow typically occurs when the challenge of a task matches an individual’s skill level, creating a balance that leads to a highly productive and enjoyable experience. It’s often experienced in various activities, such as sports, art, work, and even everyday tasks when they are engaging and challenging in the right way. On the other side of flow: complexity, adaptability, increase in mastery, and increase in wisdom.
Peak Performance Aging in the Workplace
In Steven Kotler’s experience working with countless CEOs, creativity and empathy are the attributes that are most needed, yet hardest to hire or train. The same skills and traits show up on numerous lists for a workplace’s most looked-for skills in upcoming years.
Creativity is essential in driving innovation in the current fast-paced world. Empathy is fundamental in team collaboration and in a customer-focused business environment. Both attributes are essential in gaining a competitive edge.
Peak performance aging is a lifestyle that involves all aspects of life, not just work. And while those of us who support the people side of business are not tasked with lifestyle changes, we can provide opportunities for slower decline and further development of the older, but wiser growing population of the workforce.
Yeva Madden, MSHI, MA, ACC
Client Engagement Manager