Older Worker Issues

Older workers compose a growing segment of the workforce who must contend with a variety of distinctive concerns as they navigate their careers. Special concerns include physical, cognitive, and emotional changes that accompany the aging process, sources of work stress for older workers, the specter of age discrimination in employment opportunities, late career and skill maintenance concerns, and ultimately, decisions about when and how to retire from active employment. Evidence indicates that older adults are capable of maintaining high performance levels and positive attitudes toward work late into their lives.

Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists can use information about challenges that confront older workers to develop recruitment and retention strategies and work designs that allow older workers to maintain their performance effectiveness and to see work as a satisfying and rewarding experience.

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Age and Workforce Demographics

The point at which the term older worker is applied in studies of workforce demographics may be as early as 40 years of age or as late as 65 years of age. Nonetheless, studies of workforce demographics all come to similar conclusions: The proportion of older adults who continue to engage in paid employment well into their 60s and 70s is growing and the proportion of our workforce that can be classified as older will continue to expand throughout the next decade.

Labor force participation rates generally tend to drop off beginning at about age 55 years, due primarily to early and normal retirements. However, labor force participation rates among those who are age 55 years and older are on the rise, with a projected labor force participation rate of 37% among those 55 and older by the year 2010. Among those ages 55 to 64 years, participation rates are expected to exceed 60%, and participation rates among those aged 65 to 74 are expected to exceed 22%. In fact, it is projected that over 55 workers will compose approximately 17% of the total civilian labor force in the United States by the year 2010. The growth of this segment of the workforce represents the convergence of several forces, including increased health and life span, economic policies that encourage prolonged working (e.g., increases in the standard retirement age that qualifies an individual for full Social Security benefits), and elimination of mandatory retirement policies from most civilian occupations in the United States.

Changes That Accompany Aging

Several aspects of physical work capacity, such as aerobic capacity, strength and endurance, tolerance for heat and cold, and ability to adapt to shifts in waking and sleeping cycles, systematically decline with age. Sensory skills such as visual acuity and auditory sensitivity, and some psychomotor abilities including manual dexterity and finger dexterity, begin to decline once workers move into their 40s and beyond. Of course, the extent to which such decrements are likely to be associated with performance problems depends substantially on the nature of physical job requirements.

The most consistent finding in studies of cognitive abilities across the life span is a general slowing of response to information processing demands as adults age, particularly as they move into their 60s and beyond. In addition, recall and working memory both decline with age. Also, the manner in which learners prefer to acquire new skills differs between younger and older learners, with older learners preferring more active, experiential learning approaches and preferring to learn at a somewhat slower pace. Certain aspects of cognition are more affected by aging than others, and the rate of decline is slowed when cognitive skills are used regularly—use it or lose it seems to be an apt phrase in this case. Furthermore, some aspects of intellectual development—notably, those aspects of cognitive functioning that rely on expert knowledge (or wisdom)—continue to increase or remain stable well into the 70s.

Most personality traits are quite stable throughout the life course, but a general dampening of emotional responsiveness accompanies the aging process. There are also age-related shifts in the kinds of coping strategies that adults use to manage stressful experiences and increased skill in using such strategies.

Normal aging is also accompanied by increased frequency and severity of health concerns. Many older workers function with a variety of chronic health conditions, such as arthritis and chronic back pain, which also prompts them to carry out work duties while coping with some degree of pain or mobility impairment. All these factors have implications for physical stamina and the ability to sustain physically and mentally demanding work.

With all these changes in mind, it is important to point out two other sets of findings regarding age-related changes and characteristics. First, from life span studies, we know that the rate and extent of age-related change differs considerably among adults. This is a recurring theme of findings regarding cognitive and physical abilities, health status, and most other characteristics relevant to work functioning. Thus generalities regarding characteristics of older workers will frequently be incorrect for a particular individual worker.

Second, it is a common misconception that the changes accompanying aging will inevitably be associated with systematic declines in motivation, work attitudes, and job performance. Although it is certainly true that changes in physical and cognitive functioning that accompany the aging process provide the potential for reduced performance in some kinds of jobs, evidence of performance declines with aging tends to be the exception rather than the rule. There is little evidence that levels of motivation differ as a function of worker age, and studies of the relationship between age and work performance show no systematic relationship between the two. Absenteeism rates are generally low among older workers, and the frequency of accidents is actually lower among older workers than among younger workers. Furthermore, attitudes such as job satisfaction are somewhat more positive among older workers than among younger workers.

Sources of Work Stress

Workers experience occupational stress when there is a mismatch between the demands of the job and the capabilities and resources of the worker. The changes that accompany aging provide some guidance regarding the conditions under which older workers are most likely to experience stress and the strains that accompany prolonged stress, such as performance decrements, injuries, negative work attitudes, and mental and physical health symptoms.

For example, jobs that require heavy lifting and tasks that involve external pacing and substantial time pressure produce chronic demands that may be of particular significance to older workers. Likewise, hot and cold work environments may be physically more taxing to older workers than they are to younger workers; and work schedules that require night work will be more demanding for older workers than for younger workers.

Other features of job design, such as the widespread incorporation of technology in the workplace, may produce both threats and opportunities for older workers. On the one hand, technological innovations (e.g., adjustable illumination and font sizes on computer displays and ergonomically designed chairs and workstations) can be used as a way of redesigning work to accommodate needs of older workers, thus reducing some sources of work-related stress. On the other hand, new technologies often require skill sets that many older workers have not developed. The threat of obsolescence that this raises can serve as a stressor that is particularly salient to older workers.

Older workers are also at risk from organizational sources of stress associated with their work roles. For example, time pressures and work overload have become a way of life on many jobs. The long-term nature of their exposure to the constant pressure of too much to do and insufficient time to accomplish it increases the likelihood that older workers will experience negative consequences, including burnout and reduced health and well-being.

Distinct from work design, the social environment in which work takes place exerts a variety of pressures on older workers that may be experienced as stressful, or that may reduce their ability to cope effectively with work demands. These include subtle or overt forms of age discrimination, hints about what older workers can and should do, and organizational cultures that devalue experience and wisdom.

Age Discrimination

Although evidence regarding the relationship between worker age and work performance suggests that worker age is a singularly poor predictor of work performance, older workers encounter a variety of barriers to employment opportunities that reflect discrimination on the basis of age. Studies have documented age discrimination in many occupations with respect to hiring, promotions, salaries, and access to development opportunities. Sometimes the discrimination is fairly blatant, but at other times it represents more subtle (and often unintentional) differences in the way older workers and younger workers are treated at work.

One of the most common explanations for age discrimination is that managers and other decision makers are influenced by stereotypes that depict older workers as less capable, less energetic, less creative, more rigid, and less willing to learn than younger workers. This has the potential to put older job candidates at an unfair disadvantage when competing against younger applicants for jobs, promotions, and development opportunities. An additional unfortunate consequence of age discrimination is that it creates an environment in which older workers sometimes feel threats to their job security and, quite reasonably, experience anxiety about becoming re-employed should they lose their jobs.

To combat age discrimination in the United States, legal protections are afforded to older workers by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. This legislation protects employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, wages, and conditions of employment.

Career and Work-Life Issues

Workplace norms and expectations about appropriate career trajectories, such as the sense that an individual is stalled with respect to career advancement, cause considerable distress and distraction for many older workers. As organizational structures continue to flatten, the problem of career plateaus has become more widespread because there are fewer opportunities to continue upward movement.

Training and retraining are an important means of ensuring that older workers can continue to perform their jobs effectively and that they can move into new jobs and career paths later in their careers. Unrestricted opportunities for new skill development, support for participation in training, and training program design that incorporates the learning styles and preferences of older workers are all important to ensuring that late-career workers can continue to be effective in their work.

Among their work-life concerns, many older workers are likely to have significant responsibilities for the care of elderly adults, financial responsibility for college students, and concerns about coordinating their own plans for retirement or continued work with those of a spouse or partner. To be responsive to the work-life needs of older workers, employers need to take these kinds of concerns into account when they develop programs aimed at providing workers with options for balancing their work and personal lives.

Retirement Decisions

As they move into their 50s and 60s, most workers devote considerable time and energy to wrestling with decisions about if and when to retire. Retirement decision making is a complex process that includes consideration of the timing of retirement (retire at age 55? 65? 75? Never?); the completeness of retirement, such as complete permanent withdrawal from the paid workforce versus alternative work arrangements such as part-time work or so-called bridge employment; and the voluntariness of retirement including feeling pushed out of a job or retiring for health reasons versus retiring to spend more time with family and other personal pursuits.

Personal preferences, health, and economic and social pressures to continue working or discontinue working as one nears normal retirement age all play important roles in this process. For example, early retirement packages offered by many organizations as a way of reducing their workforces provide opportunities for some workers to leave the workforce early or shift to new careers. Chronic health problems may speed retirement; or they may lead to the decision to delay retirement to maintain access to health care benefits. In addition, personal preferences for continued work and the financial pressures of eldercare and family education lead many older workers to continue some form of paid employment well past the age of 65 years, but it may not be in the form of traditional full-time employment. As a result, the reality of retirement is that many workers will move into and out of the workforce several times during their later years, and organizations can make best use of the talents of these workers if they design flexible work arrangements that can accommodate this kind of movement.


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