Our Aging Decision-Makers

When it comes to decision-making, the saying “with age comes wisdom” may only be half the story. 

An increasing number of our society’s important political and economic decision-makers are over the age of 65.

While the current prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, is considered youthful at the age of 49, he is the exception rather than the rule. Donald Trump occupied the Whitehouse at 70 years old, followed by the US president Joe Biden at 78.

Average age at hire of CEOs and CFOs in the United States from 2005 to 2018.
Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1097551/average-age-at-hire-of-ceos-and-cfos-in-the-united-states/

And it’s not just politics. Business leaders have also been becoming increasingly older at hire over the years.

The problem is, many factors affect decision-making, including past experience, cognitive abilities, age, socioeconomic status and many other individual differences.

Although each of these factors have been extensively studied, to date, there is little research examining the interaction between two specific factors; experience and age.

As we get older, we experience significant decline in cognitive functions due to normal wear and tear of the brain. Even in healthy adults, the changes that accompany healthy aging can make difficult decisions much more effortful, which can translate to poor decision-making.

So, what does it mean for aging leaders whose decisions influence the lives of millions of others? 

With age, we gain experience and knowledge that guides our decision-making. Older adults may therefore not have to think so hard if they have experienced a similar situation before. They might even be better at making decisions based on experience because on average, they have more practice than younger adults. 

In that sense, the older we get, the wiser we get as well.

Research shows that expertise benefits decision-making. An expert can focus on meaningful, relevant information which aids in the generation of a workable course of action. Expertise may therefore help older decision-makers maintain performance, even in the face of cognitive decline. From this point of view, it seems logical to have older decision-makers in positions of power. 

Unfortunately, that’s only half the story. 

When faced with new situations, even decision-makers who have years of experience cannot rely on it and may have to exert just as much effort as those with no experience in these situations. In a rapidly evolving society like ours, decision-makers are bound to face situations they have never experienced before. When age is added to the picture, the amount of cognitive effort required to make complex decisions may not be possible given cognitive decline.

So where does that leave us?

Rather than viewing cognitive decline as a dead end for older adults, research urges us instead to consider that older and younger adults may simply be optimal decision-makers in different situations.

Due to their extensive expertise, older adults may be better at making decisions that rely on past experience than younger adults. In contrast, younger adults may be better than older adults at decision-making in contexts that require more cognitive effort in order to consider all possible options.

Though research shows that we may be unable to change the brain, we may be able to change the environment in which we make decisions, using what we know about decision-making and aging to our benefit.