As individuals age, the possibilities for age and career stage to be asynchronous are numerous. Many workers over age 50 are about to graduate from school to start new careers, and many individuals in their late 40s are retiring after 30 years of service. Following common usage in the area, the general boundaries of this article are career issues that typically affect individuals who are over age 50 or who have been in the workforce 30 years or longer.
Satisfaction with Jobs and Careers
Research suggests that both older workers and late-career employees have more positive attitudes toward their jobs (e.g., job satisfaction and job involvement). One explanation for this finding is that late-career workers have more realistic expectations for their jobs than do their younger, less experienced peers. As a result, they experience a smaller discrepancy between what they hope to get from their jobs (in terms of both tangible rewards and intrinsic satisfaction) and what they actually receive from them. They are old enough to have gotten over the “entry shock” of the world of work and senior enough to be less troubled by minor psychological contract violations.
Another potential explanation of these results is that late-career employees and older workers have jobs that pay more and provide more exciting work duties. Often as a consequence of increased seniority, older workers accrue jobs that provide greater job security and pay higher fringe benefits (e.g., pension benefits, vacation, and sick leave), particularly since many organizations distribute such benefits on the basis of years of service. Using this rationale, then, older workers are more satisfied with their jobs than are younger employees not because of the aging process per se but because older workers have fundamentally more rewarding work situations than their younger colleagues.
Whether late-career employees are happier with their careers (as opposed to their jobs) is less clear. Certainly, consistent with the logic described above, there are multiple reasons why senior people would have more positive attitudes toward their careers than their younger, less experienced colleagues. Being a partner of a major law firm or accounting firm is typically a more satisfying experience, in terms of both salary and hours worked, than being an associate. In addition, cognitive dissonance may play an important role in the higher career satisfaction of later-career employees. Thirty-year veterans in one career may have internal pressure to self-justify their professional investments as being more worthwhile than do early-career individuals.
Nonetheless, there is at least some indirect evidence that satisfaction with careers tapers off in late career. For example, when older people retire and then come back into the workforce in some type of “bridge employment,” more than 25 percent choose a new career altogether. There are several potential explanations for this phenomenon.
Part of the explanation may rest with the issue of burnout; after 30 years in a vocation, individuals may experience boredom and lack of emotional involvement in their daily activities and psychologically distance themselves from their occupations. Another potential explanation is that older workers may start devaluing their careers as a means of adjusting to retirement. As workers become more aware of impending retirement, they may start devaluing their vocations to reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance they might experience when they leave them—for example, “I’m not leaving such great a career after all.” Third, career paths can change dramatically over the course of a 30-year period, and individuals may look backward and find the changes in their career paths unappealing.
Perceived Age Discrimination and Work-Related Self-Esteem
A particularly important job attitude to consider here is perceived age discrimination. In trying to explain this phenomenon, researchers have drawn a distinction between normative age and chronological age. This research suggests that it is not only chronological age that can create bias but also an individual’s age relative to expectations of others. Thus, even within a cohort of individuals at the same chronological age, some can be described as being ahead of schedule, on track, or falling behind—and this last group is the most vulnerable to age discrimination.
Along similar lines, the research of organizational demographers suggests that the more discrepant an individual’s age with the dominant coalition in a group, the more likely he or she is to be discriminated against. Thus, late-career individuals working primarily with other older employees are less likely to be subjected to bias than those working primarily with young employees.
As a result of perceived age discrimination, organizationally based self-esteem tends to decline over time as well. As the result of negative comments from coworkers and supervisors about the value of older workers, senior employees often experience lower life satisfaction, more frequent feelings of depression and learned helplessness, and less sense of being valued by the organization. These feelings of lower self-worth frequently appear in reaction to performance appraisals from supervisors, whose subjective evaluations of older workers tend to be harsher than objective performance indicators might suggest.
Absenteeism and Turnover
In light of the evidence presented above, it is not surprising that older workers, as a group, have lower levels of absenteeism than their younger colleagues. Although negative stereotypes of older workers suggest they would have more illnesses that require absences from work, older workers are, in fact, less likely to take days off. One explanation for this finding is that older workers, because they are more highly paid and may have more responsible jobs, are less likely to take days off except when absolutely necessary. Another explanation is that younger workers, particularly those with school-age children, are more susceptible to getting sick or having to miss work to care for sick children. There is yet another potential explanation for this relationship, namely, that older workers with significant health problems are more likely to exit the workforce altogether via retirement. Consequently, older workers with the worst health problems are less likely to be included in studies of age differences in absenteeism because they are no longer in the labor market.
Similarly, previous research has found that older workers have lower levels of voluntary turnover. Again, because late-career workers may be more likely to have jobs that pay well and have higher levels of job responsibility, they may be less likely to seek out alternative employment. In addition, many firms distribute benefits such as pension contributions and vacation days on the basis of organizational tenure, further enhancing the financial inducements to stay. Furthermore, many older workers fear age discrimination in the labor market and worry that they wouldn’t be able to get good replacement jobs if they quit their current employment. Thus, late-career employees often have fewer “push” factors to get them to leave their present employers and fewer “pull” factors that impel them to enter the open job market.
Job Loss, Reemployment, and Underemployment
The preponderance of research on turnover among older workers has focused on voluntary exits from current positions. Some recent research on involuntary turnover caused by downsizings highlights the particular problems older workers face in the job market. In many ways, the experiences of laid-off older workers are similar to those of their younger colleagues. That is, older workers, too, typically experience feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, and hopelessness.
However, their probability of losing their jobs via layoff and their success in finding new employment are quite different. In the case of blue-collar workers, workers with high seniority are actually less likely to lose their jobs. Blue-collar workers who are members of unions typically enjoy some seniority-based protections, and even in the case of non-unionized workers, companies may be more willing to use seniority as grounds for layoffs than subjective performance ratings, which may not hold up well in litigation for wrongful discharge. The situation is largely opposite in the case of “exempt” white-collar workers. With the push to eliminate whole levels of management to save money, organizations have been disproportionately eliminating middle- and upper-middle-level management positions that are not readily seen as adding tangible value. The impact of this management strategy clearly negatively impacts older and late-career employees, who hold the majority of such positions.
Whether they are blue-collar or white-collar, though, the evidence is fairly strong that older workers have a more difficult time finding reemployment. As noted above, many supervisors have negative stereotypes of older workers anyway, and hiring older workers who have been let go by another firm is an even less appetizing proposition to them. In still other cases, older workers are so embedded in their communities (by virtue of home ownership, family responsibilities for parents, or a spouse’s job) that geographical relocation to obtain new employment is seen as an unacceptable option.
Older workers also seem to be more vulnerable to becoming underemployed in their replacement jobs— and for many of the same reasons that make it harder for older workers to get new jobs at all. That is, even when older workers become reemployed, they often have to take positions that pay much less money than their last jobs paid, provide substantially poorer benefits, or entail far less challenging or less responsible job duties. While generic outplacement services tend to have little impact on older workers’ abilities to become reemployed, some recent research suggests that individualized career planning is particularly instrumental in sustaining older workers’ energy for job hunting and in identifying the most appropriate replacement jobs for them.
The topic of job performance of older workers has been attacked from two different perspectives. The first examines whether late-career employees are more likely to receive lower “subjective” performance appraisal ratings from supervisors than are their younger colleagues. The second examines whether the “objective” skills of older workers tend to decay over time; here, the research has traditionally examined the degree of decline in “cognitive” skills (such as memory) and “physical” skills (such as gross strength or fine-motor control) over time. We discuss each of these issues in more detail below.
Subjective Performance Ratings
A major review of studies that looked at the relationship between age and job performance in the 1980s found approximately equal numbers of studies reporting that job performance increases with age, decreases with age, and remains the same. These results suggested that the relationship between age and job performance may very well depend on other factors, such as the type of work late-career employees perform and the reliability of performance appraisal instruments. Reexamining these qualitative assessments with a statistical meta-analysis, subsequent researchers have discovered some interesting patterns of results. When employees are evaluated on objective indices of productivity, older workers actually significantly outperform younger workers. However, when older workers are evaluated by supervisors with global rating scales, they receive significantly lower evaluations than do younger workers.
Thus, rater bias and age discrimination, rather than older workers’ productivity levels themselves, seem to account for the widespread belief that job performance declines with age. Older workers whose jobs are primarily managerial in nature, whose job outcomes tend to be less tangible, and whose job duties tend to be less visible may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of age discrimination. In such cases, superiors have more latitude to discriminate against older workers in their evaluations because there is less objective, observable data with which to refute superiors’ assertions.
Labor economists have used an implicit-contract model to explain another potential reason for age bias in subjective performance ratings. Younger workers are often paid below their marginal rates of productivity, while older workers are often paid above their marginal productivity. Labor economists hypothesize that this compensation practice evolved to motivate younger workers to put more effort into their jobs and to be more loyal organizational citizens, with the hope that, they, too, will be able to cash in when they get older. However, when faced with the reality of paying older workers wages that are above their marginal productivity, managers want to change the deal in order to cut costs.
In more recent work on the political nature of performance appraisals, several other potential explanations for this divergence in ratings have become evident. First, supervisors may be giving late-career employees lower evaluations in order to give young employees higher pay raises. Thus, the primary motivation for giving late-career employees lower evaluations may not necessarily be discrimination, but rather to justify distributing scarce pay raise dollars to younger workers who might otherwise leave the firm. Alternatively, supervisors of late-career employees may give low evaluations to older workers to block potential rivals from being promoted over them or from being promoted into their own jobs.
Objective Performance Indicators
Aging can negatively impact the information-processing capabilities of older workers in two ways. First, there is some evidence that older workers process new information less speedily than their younger colleagues and, consequently, can’t make decisions as quickly. Second, there is some evidence that older workers have smaller working memories than younger people. That is, older workers cannot keep track of as many variables at the same time and, consequently, have more trouble making complex decisions under time pressure.
While these age-related effects have been found quite consistently, the magnitude and consequences of these deficits may not be as severe as widely believed. Many of the experimental tasks used in these kinds of studies have been rote-memory tasks (e.g., recalling paired-word associations). Whereas memorizing rote lists is a common task for younger people, it is a much less frequent activity for older workers, and it may not be the most appropriate way to test their working memories. When the new knowledge to be acquired is linked to existing knowledge, age differences in memory are quite small and frequently inconsequential.
In terms of physical skills, the literature on gerontology suggests that older workers do experience declines in gross motor strength, fine-motor control, visual acuity, and auditory acuity. However, declines in these capabilities are quite modest and occur after age 70, when most older workers have already left the workforce.
What is much harder to get a handle on is how less visible deficits in physical well-being (such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pain) impact job performance. Certainly, these physical conditions are both more common and more likely to be severe with older workers, but tightly controlled studies measuring their impact on performance are rare. Research from the retirement literature, though, does suggest that workers with severe health problems are more likely to retire “early” (before reaching 30 years of service), so the main effect of poor physical health may be on workforce exit rather than on workforce performance.
Another issue that comes into play is the objective performance criteria on which older workers are being evaluated. Several researchers suggest that age-based differences in performance are attenuated when quality is taken into consideration as an outcome variable. Taken collectively, their results indicate that older workers have a propensity to pursue quality in performance tasks and may be more willing to sacrifice quantity to achieve that goal. There is little evidence to date on the relationship between age and extra-role or citizenship behavior, and what evidence does exist suggests a nonsignificant age effect.
In sum, then, the global relationship between age and performance is quite modest in magnitude. Moreover, it is highly dependent on which tasks are being performed, how performance is measured, and who measures it.
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