Crystallised v fluid intelligence: debunking the career decline myth


Intelligence ripens as we age. Rich experience allows us to develop skills that employers can benefit from. But first, you need to understand the difference between crystallised and fluid intelligence.

Tech entrepreneur Judy Sahay discovered the value older workers could bring to her company almost by chance. Sahay is the Founder and Managing Director of Crowd Media, a group of agencies focused on technology, digital marketing and media.

Ageism is common in the tech industry, where digital natives reign supreme. Recent research by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden indicates that ‘old’ in IT terms means anyone over 35 years old.

Earlier this year, research from AHRI and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) showed that people’s perceptions of what constituted an older worker had shifted. In 2014, 12.5 per cent believed someone aged 51-55 was an older worker. By this year, that perception had jumped to nearly 17 per cent.

When Sahay found out an older friend had been made redundant, she decided to offer him a job in her company.

“He had worked for one of the big four banks and it just hit me how much knowledge is stored in people who’ve had around 20 to 30 years of corporate experience,” she says. 

“From that point on, we’ve been actively looking to hire people over 50. We have four [out of 13] older workers currently, and we’re looking to add two more this year.”

It’s not all about fluid intelligence…

Sahay’s observations about older employees relates to the theory of crystallised versus fluid intelligence, developed in 1963 by psychologist Raymond B. Cattell. 

“Fluid intelligence is the capacity to think quickly and reason flexibly to solve problems you don’t have the prior experience or accumulated knowledge for,” says Joanna Maxwell, Director of the Age Discrimination team at the AHRC. 

This could include solving complex mathematical problems or noticing patterns in statistical data. 

Crystallised intelligence, on the other hand, comes with experience. It’s the ability to use skills and knowledge that you acquire from prior learning over time. 

“It involves the ability to recall pre-existing information or skills that you can apply.”

While fluid intelligence starts waning in your late 20s (yikes), crystallised intelligence may continue to accumulate at least into your 80s, challenging the notion that overall intelligence degrades as we age.

“By doing novel things and staying in the workforce, you can build crystallised intelligence but also maintain fluid intelligence, which is certainly my lived experience.” – Joanna Maxwell, Director of the Age Discrimination team, AHRC. 

Referring to research conducted by Monash University and the Australian Institute of Management almost a decade ago, Maxwell says that people of different ages have the same overall ability to reason, solve problems and lead groups – but they rely on a different skillset to do it.

“The researchers very strongly came to the view that the age-based differences are so slight that they’re not relevant for judging workers on the basis of age,” she says. “But that doesn’t stop some people from doing it.”

So how does crystallised intelligence come in handy in the workplace? It starts with the synthesis of knowledge.

Maxwell describes this as saving us from “reinventing the wheel”.

“Often you’ll find that an older worker will say, ‘We did some work around that 10 years ago’ or ‘I was involved in a [similar] project and this is what we found’,” she says. 

Sahay has experienced the impact this can have first-hand, when Crowd Media signed a client through the application of one of its older worker’s industry knowledge. 

The client, who’s in the home renovation space, was initially reluctant to partner with the agency, because it lacked experience in that particular industry. But when Sahay brought the employee, Cathy, into a meeting with the client, her presence and expertise sealed the deal.

“She had actually worked for one of the biggest kitchen manufacturing companies for 30 years, where she was the head of operations,” says Sahay. “She was able to add so much value by talking about the challenges of the manufacturing plan and Six Sigma – things I didn’t even know she knew.”

The other workplace benefits

Another core component of crystallised intelligence is high emotional intelligence, such as mood regulation and less impulsivity.

Sahay finds the emotional maturity of Crowd Media’s older employees makes them more open to feedback and suggestions. 

“There’s no ego, because they’ve already been there, done that,” she says. 

Leanne Cutcher, professor of management and organisation studies at the University of Sydney, led a recent study based on a large Australian insurance company that wanted to employ more older workers in its call centre. 

While this was partly because it wanted to mirror its customer base, it also observed that older workers’ life experience made them more empathic on the phone. 

“They were able to sense where people were coming from and were more intuitive.”

Changing how we recognise and reward

If organisations are going to hire older workers based on the skills their crystallised intelligence provides, they need to appropriately value and recognise those workers and skills.

Going back to Cutcher’s call centre research, even though the company said it valued its older employees’ experience, it didn’t really show it.

The overarching goal was to sell more policies, which is what the company’s reward mechanisms were based around.

“They would say, ‘If you sell well, you can get off the phones for the day and be a support worker on the floor,’” she says.

“But the older people weren’t getting those opportunities, simply because they weren’t meeting this one narrow performance target as they were spending more time on the phone with the customers.” 

A day off the phones might not sound like much, but Cutcher says when the older workers were never nominated for this, it perpetuated the idea that they weren’t good enough or that they weren’t performing well enough. 

“Recognition can actually mean a lot to people, whether it’s giving certificates or calling things out in team meetings.” 

Sahay points out that moving up in the company is not always the aim of people when they get into their 50s and 60s.

“They could be quite happy to be where they are, doing a really good job,” adds Cutcher, who thinks performance measures should be built around knowledge sharing and ideas generation.

Having team targets along with individual targets would have worked better in the call centre, says Cutcher. That way, everyone would have been valued for the different things they brought to the role.

As with any other employee, you need to figure out what development and success means to your older workers, says Sahay. 

“At Crowd, they are remunerated slightly higher than the younger workers due to the knowledge and connections they bring in to the business,” she says.

In this context, when Cathy signed the kitchen renovation account, she was similarly rewarded for her industry knowledge.

“We gave her a commission to say thank you because we wouldn’t have got that sale without her.”

Cognitive training

While fluid intelligence was once thought to be static, new research shows that we can in fact maintain and improve it through cognitive training exercises such as pattern detection.

“By doing novel things and staying in the workforce, you can build crystallised intelligence but also maintain fluid intelligence, which is certainly my lived experience,” says Maxwell. 

But she also mentions how extreme discrimination can be in the recruitment phase, with many recruiters refusing to hire anyone over 50.

Another hurdle older workers may encounter is less access to training. 

“There’s an assumption that they’re not interested, or that they’re going to retire soon, so why waste the resources?” says Maxwell. This is the wrong way to think about it.

In Sahay’s experience, any knowledge gaps in Crowd Media’s older workforce can be easily filled through training.

Her employees undergo regular sales, digital and marketing training, including how new iOS updates impact Facebook marketing, and ad hoc training on the company’s core platforms such as Mailchimp, Clickfunnels and Typeforms.

This helps employees gain confidence and clarity, and opens up new project opportunities, as well as the ability to cross-promote their skills across different divisions.

“Cathy, for example, underwent full digital marketing training and now creates digital content and strategy for some of our clients. She already had a wealth of knowledge in strategy, but we’ve been able to combine her skills with the latest digital knowledge.” 

When it comes to applying the concept of crystallised and fluid intelligence in the workplace, Maxwell says she would hate to see it used to put people in a box. 

“I never like to suggest that workers of any type or background should be niched into one,” she says. “As soon as we find a new way of dividing people, we like to use it.” 

While crystallised intelligence is an interesting marker, Maxwell says it should be looked at alongside other thinking styles that people possess throughout their lifetime, such as creativity or logic. 

“I’d like to see it as a bigger-picture way of recognising that everyone brings a different combination of skills, experience and ways of looking at the world.”

A longer version of this article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.


Read more about the AHRI/AHRC 2021 research on older workers and how employers’ attitudes have changed over time here.


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Crystallised v fluid intelligence: debunking the career decline myth


Intelligence ripens as we age. Rich experience allows us to develop skills that employers can benefit from. But first, you need to understand the difference between crystallised and fluid intelligence.

Tech entrepreneur Judy Sahay discovered the value older workers could bring to her company almost by chance. Sahay is the Founder and Managing Director of Crowd Media, a group of agencies focused on technology, digital marketing and media.

Ageism is common in the tech industry, where digital natives reign supreme. Recent research by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden indicates that ‘old’ in IT terms means anyone over 35 years old.

Earlier this year, research from AHRI and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) showed that people’s perceptions of what constituted an older worker had shifted. In 2014, 12.5 per cent believed someone aged 51-55 was an older worker. By this year, that perception had jumped to nearly 17 per cent.

When Sahay found out an older friend had been made redundant, she decided to offer him a job in her company.

“He had worked for one of the big four banks and it just hit me how much knowledge is stored in people who’ve had around 20 to 30 years of corporate experience,” she says. 

“From that point on, we’ve been actively looking to hire people over 50. We have four [out of 13] older workers currently, and we’re looking to add two more this year.”

It’s not all about fluid intelligence…

Sahay’s observations about older employees relates to the theory of crystallised versus fluid intelligence, developed in 1963 by psychologist Raymond B. Cattell. 

“Fluid intelligence is the capacity to think quickly and reason flexibly to solve problems you don’t have the prior experience or accumulated knowledge for,” says Joanna Maxwell, Director of the Age Discrimination team at the AHRC. 

This could include solving complex mathematical problems or noticing patterns in statistical data. 

Crystallised intelligence, on the other hand, comes with experience. It’s the ability to use skills and knowledge that you acquire from prior learning over time. 

“It involves the ability to recall pre-existing information or skills that you can apply.”

While fluid intelligence starts waning in your late 20s (yikes), crystallised intelligence may continue to accumulate at least into your 80s, challenging the notion that overall intelligence degrades as we age.

“By doing novel things and staying in the workforce, you can build crystallised intelligence but also maintain fluid intelligence, which is certainly my lived experience.” – Joanna Maxwell, Director of the Age Discrimination team, AHRC. 

Referring to research conducted by Monash University and the Australian Institute of Management almost a decade ago, Maxwell says that people of different ages have the same overall ability to reason, solve problems and lead groups – but they rely on a different skillset to do it.

“The researchers very strongly came to the view that the age-based differences are so slight that they’re not relevant for judging workers on the basis of age,” she says. “But that doesn’t stop some people from doing it.”

So how does crystallised intelligence come in handy in the workplace? It starts with the synthesis of knowledge.

Maxwell describes this as saving us from “reinventing the wheel”.

“Often you’ll find that an older worker will say, ‘We did some work around that 10 years ago’ or ‘I was involved in a [similar] project and this is what we found’,” she says. 

Sahay has experienced the impact this can have first-hand, when Crowd Media signed a client through the application of one of its older worker’s industry knowledge. 

The client, who’s in the home renovation space, was initially reluctant to partner with the agency, because it lacked experience in that particular industry. But when Sahay brought the employee, Cathy, into a meeting with the client, her presence and expertise sealed the deal.

“She had actually worked for one of the biggest kitchen manufacturing companies for 30 years, where she was the head of operations,” says Sahay. “She was able to add so much value by talking about the challenges of the manufacturing plan and Six Sigma – things I didn’t even know she knew.”

The other workplace benefits

Another core component of crystallised intelligence is high emotional intelligence, such as mood regulation and less impulsivity.

Sahay finds the emotional maturity of Crowd Media’s older employees makes them more open to feedback and suggestions. 

“There’s no ego, because they’ve already been there, done that,” she says. 

Leanne Cutcher, professor of management and organisation studies at the University of Sydney, led a recent study based on a large Australian insurance company that wanted to employ more older workers in its call centre. 

While this was partly because it wanted to mirror its customer base, it also observed that older workers’ life experience made them more empathic on the phone. 

“They were able to sense where people were coming from and were more intuitive.”

Changing how we recognise and reward

If organisations are going to hire older workers based on the skills their crystallised intelligence provides, they need to appropriately value and recognise those workers and skills.

Going back to Cutcher’s call centre research, even though the company said it valued its older employees’ experience, it didn’t really show it.

The overarching goal was to sell more policies, which is what the company’s reward mechanisms were based around.

“They would say, ‘If you sell well, you can get off the phones for the day and be a support worker on the floor,’” she says.

“But the older people weren’t getting those opportunities, simply because they weren’t meeting this one narrow performance target as they were spending more time on the phone with the customers.” 

A day off the phones might not sound like much, but Cutcher says when the older workers were never nominated for this, it perpetuated the idea that they weren’t good enough or that they weren’t performing well enough. 

“Recognition can actually mean a lot to people, whether it’s giving certificates or calling things out in team meetings.” 

Sahay points out that moving up in the company is not always the aim of people when they get into their 50s and 60s.

“They could be quite happy to be where they are, doing a really good job,” adds Cutcher, who thinks performance measures should be built around knowledge sharing and ideas generation.

Having team targets along with individual targets would have worked better in the call centre, says Cutcher. That way, everyone would have been valued for the different things they brought to the role.

As with any other employee, you need to figure out what development and success means to your older workers, says Sahay. 

“At Crowd, they are remunerated slightly higher than the younger workers due to the knowledge and connections they bring in to the business,” she says.

In this context, when Cathy signed the kitchen renovation account, she was similarly rewarded for her industry knowledge.

“We gave her a commission to say thank you because we wouldn’t have got that sale without her.”

Cognitive training

While fluid intelligence was once thought to be static, new research shows that we can in fact maintain and improve it through cognitive training exercises such as pattern detection.

“By doing novel things and staying in the workforce, you can build crystallised intelligence but also maintain fluid intelligence, which is certainly my lived experience,” says Maxwell. 

But she also mentions how extreme discrimination can be in the recruitment phase, with many recruiters refusing to hire anyone over 50.

Another hurdle older workers may encounter is less access to training. 

“There’s an assumption that they’re not interested, or that they’re going to retire soon, so why waste the resources?” says Maxwell. This is the wrong way to think about it.

In Sahay’s experience, any knowledge gaps in Crowd Media’s older workforce can be easily filled through training.

Her employees undergo regular sales, digital and marketing training, including how new iOS updates impact Facebook marketing, and ad hoc training on the company’s core platforms such as Mailchimp, Clickfunnels and Typeforms.

This helps employees gain confidence and clarity, and opens up new project opportunities, as well as the ability to cross-promote their skills across different divisions.

“Cathy, for example, underwent full digital marketing training and now creates digital content and strategy for some of our clients. She already had a wealth of knowledge in strategy, but we’ve been able to combine her skills with the latest digital knowledge.” 

When it comes to applying the concept of crystallised and fluid intelligence in the workplace, Maxwell says she would hate to see it used to put people in a box. 

“I never like to suggest that workers of any type or background should be niched into one,” she says. “As soon as we find a new way of dividing people, we like to use it.” 

While crystallised intelligence is an interesting marker, Maxwell says it should be looked at alongside other thinking styles that people possess throughout their lifetime, such as creativity or logic. 

“I’d like to see it as a bigger-picture way of recognising that everyone brings a different combination of skills, experience and ways of looking at the world.”

A longer version of this article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.


Read more about the AHRI/AHRC 2021 research on older workers and how employers’ attitudes have changed over time here.


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