Lost in a Time Warp: How Age Stereotypes Impact Older Baby Boomers Who Still Want to Work
Stark, Ernie, People & Strategy
Worry about an adequate supply of labor while in the throes of the worst economic downturn in 25 years? Really? Yes. Even now, there are signs that the economy has bottomed and is starting to recover. When it fully recovers, businesses should expect to face a phenomenon seldom witnessed in the United States: a struggle to keep aging workers far beyond the customary age of retirement. Will those workers delaying retirement be subjected to the time-warped stereotypes about aging that burdened past generations? Could this stereotyping hurt their employers?
A Strange Phenomenon
If the anticipated economic upturn is somewhat sharp and rapid, rather than having an ample pool of labor to meet the increasing demand for goods and services, U.S. businesses may be competing for labor from a shrinking pool. If the economy recovers as expected, by the year 2012 there will be approximately 21 million new jobs, but only 17 million new entrants into the labor force (Schramm and Blake, 2004).
Lurking behind the relatively small number of working adults today over 64 years of age (5.6 million) looms 36.4 million workers between the ages of 50 and 64. As the leading edge of the post-World War II baby boom, this cohort represents fully 25 percent of the current workforce (Grossman, 2008).
If these baby boomers choose to retire and leave the labor force as past generations did around age 65, there simply are not enough younger workers to take their places in an expanding economy. An increasing inability to find the necessary number of replacements suggests that employers will seek to keep the boomers at work.
Employers are aware of this impending shortage, and even in the presence of the current economic downturn, a recent survey of more than 140 midsize and large U.S. employers revealed that 61 percent have developed or will develop programs to retain targeted employees near retirement age (Miller, 2009).
There are indications that many of these aging workers will be inclined to respond positively to offers of extended employment. For one, people are living considerably longer than they did 50 years ago. So there is reason to believe that the physical ravages of aging may not force the baby boomers to exit their jobs at the traditional retirement age. For another, baby boomers have done a lousy job of saving for retirement: Anywhere from 15 to 23 million of the approximately 78 million baby boomers may be forced to remain in the workforce because of inadequate financial resources (Stark, in press).
Coming to terms with an aging population and a growing tide of graying workers represents a very strange phenomenon for U.S. businesses. Many business leaders would love to emulate the Google business model in which bright young people are hired and turned loose in an internal environment designed to foster peak performance, speed and innovation. Such a desire will soon run headlong into the harsh realities of a shrinking labor market, increasing competition for those bright and energetic young employees, and reconciling corporate images of vigorous and energetic organizations with the reality of an increasing portion of the workforce composed of individuals at or near the end of their traditional 40- to 45-year career spans. Perhaps, we are moving into an era in which having one's car fixed or tonsils removed by a 75-year-old will seem normal (Collins, 2009)?
Across a New Landscape Carrying Old Baggage
Age-related biases and preconceptions in which youth is the standard held in highest esteem--young is always better, and old age is bad--permeate U.S. society, and research documents this reality. People, in general, are simply more negative toward older people (Kite and Wagner, 2004). In situations lacking relevant information, younger workers, on average, received higher performance ratings than older workers, and younger workers are, in general, favored over older workers when performance ratings are compared against each other (Finkelstein, Burke, and Raju, 1995).
"Ageism" as a term was first coined by Robert Butler, former director of the National Institute on Aging, in 1969. Like any prejudice, it is an unconscionable discrimination based on actual or perceived chronological age to mark out a class of people who are systematically denied opportunities and resources that others enjoy (Glover and Branine, 2001). Not only does ageism operate without conscious awareness, the resulting discrimination often is without intent to harm (Levy and Banaji, 2004).
Time-warped stereotypes driven by experiences with past generations can be expected to motivate ageism, as an increasing number of baby boomers work past the customary age of retirement (Grossman, 2008).
One of these stereotypes is that older workers experience greater fatigue and have less energy than younger workers. While it is undeniable that physical capacities decline with increasing age, this occurs with varying degrees of gradation (Shah and Kleiner, 2005). A belief that these baby boomers cannot bring levels of energy to work necessary to keep up with their dynamic younger peers increases the potential for time-warped, ageist behavior and language by and among management and younger employees.
A second prevailing stereotype is that older individuals are more resistive to change, less interested in receiving training and less willing to gain new knowledge than younger workers (Swift, 2004). A recovering economy drives the need to create and maintain cutting-edge innovation, and this implies that management constantly will require employees to engage in ongoing training and skill upgrading. Stereotyped as unenthusiastic about and unresponsive to ongoing training in their jobs, older baby boomers quickly may be identified as constituting a hindrance to a firm's ability to adapt and respond to change. This stereotype is likely to encourage further ageist behavior and language.
A third prevailing stereotype is that older individuals are less knowledgeable than younger workers regarding the technical aspects of their jobs due to the half-life of technical knowledge (Latchman, 2004), and they do not possess the intellectual ability necessary to cognitively master advances in technology (Kanfer and Ackerman, 2004). Time-warped beliefs regarding the outdated nature and decreased usefulness of the knowledge inherent in baby boomers forestalling retirement may well motivate management and younger workers to see them as "dead wood" that should be pruned from the firm.
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Ignore These Stereotypes
We studied how stereotypes about aging likely to accompany post-retirement working baby boomers might influence behaviors in the workplace using a sample of 1,958 individuals. These 913 females and 1,045 males, ages 30 to 75 and working a minimum of 30 hours per week for wages or salary, were drawn from the database of the National Survey Of Midlife Development In The United States 2 (Ryff, et al., 2006). For this study, individuals were classified according to the decade grouping into which they fell at the time of the survey (30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69 and > 70 years of age).
Working Past Retirement Will Not Mean Retiring On the Job
Older workers (age 60 to 69) did not report experiencing any appreciably greater decline in energy during the five years prior to the survey than their younger peers, who were between 40 and 59 years of age. Given that a decline in physical energy accompanies increasing age due to decreasing physiological functions, we would logically expect a greater degree of difference between respondents 60 to 69 and those 20 years their junior. Physical energy is defined as relating to the activity level of one's body ranging from low physical energy (e.g., lethargic) to high (e.g., heart racing), while mental energy relates to the activity level of one's mind ranging from low (e.g., no motivation) to high (e.g., racing thoughts) (USA Swimming, 2008).
Perhaps older individuals in this study were referencing their mental energy, whereas the younger were referencing their physical energy. Furthermore, if mental energy degrades at a slower rate than physical energy, perhaps baby boomers will draw on mental energy to compensate for the inevitable decline in physical energy as they work past retirement age. Witness the venerable Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, whose mental energies led their college football teams to bowl victories in their late '70s and early '80s, for an example of this possibility.
Or, perhaps this was the wrong question to ask, because we might expect that indicators of energy levels should be evident during the workday. For example, individuals with high energy levels may engage more frequently in intense levels of work than individuals with lower levels.
From a time-warped perspective, older workers with dwindling reserves of energy would be expected to pace themselves rather than engage in frequent displays of intensity. And, a lack of energy reasonably could be expected to contribute to not getting all necessary tasks done. Viewed from a time-warped stereotype, younger workers with higher levels of energy will respond to increased levels of job intensity and meet all the demands of their job rather than leaving job demands unmet, as might older workers who have lower energy levels.
To study this, individuals were asked, "How often do you have to work very intensively? That is, how often are you very busy trying to get things done?" and, "In the past year, how often at your job have you had enough time to get everything done?" A lack of energy might be observable in not having adequate reserves upon leaving the job to meet demands at home. So we also asked: "How often in the past year has your job made you feel too tired to do the things that need attention at home ?" Responses (reverse coded from the original survey) ranged from 1 = Never to 5 = Almost all of the time.
According to the data, workers over age 60 appeared no less likely than younger workers to report that they worked intensively at their jobs. There was no statistically significant difference in the responses of the various age groups, If working intensely reflects one's energy level, it does not appear that older workers have any less energy than younger workers. Furthermore, as represented in Exhibit 1, workers younger than 60 appeared more likely than workers over 60 to report problems with having enough time to get everything done (p<0.05). Certainly not what one would expect if workers in their late 60s are experiencing declining energies and vitality.
However, we might consider that the lack of difference between older and younger workers in experiencing intense work situations (even allowing for declines in physical energy) results from experience and previously learned strategies and procedures (often called crystallized intelligence) that enables older workers to organize, prioritize and manage their work to a degree greater than younger, less experienced workers (Meyers and Conner, 1992). They may actually work "smarter" rather than "harder." Such ability might predict that baby boomers working past retirement ultimately position themselves in jobs in which they can cope well, both mentally and physically, while younger workers still are attempting to master the complexities of their jobs.
Finally, as represented in Exhibit 1, individuals in this study between 60 and 69 years of age gave fewer indications of job demands making them too tired to do things at home than younger workers between 40 and 59 years of age (p<0.05). Individuals over 70 years of age also demonstrated no statistically significant difference in their responses when compared with workers younger than 59.
In reflecting on this, we might consider that home-related demands experienced by younger workers (e.g., children, shopping, housework, yard work, community activities, etc.) are likely to be more intense and require greater levels of energy (both physical and mental) than for baby boomers with empty nests, established careers and decreasing mortgages (Huffman, Youngcourt, Moncher, Henning, and Goh, 2008).
To the point, we could predict that baby boomers working past retirement would report fewer incidents of work-related demands draining the energy required to meet demands at home, along with fewer occurrences of work-family conflict negatively impacting their job performance.
Working Past Retirement Will Not Mean Avoiding Learning Something New
There certainly is reason to expect that the stereotype about older workers resisting training will be attached to baby boomers choosing to work past retirement. Researchers have reported that as people age, they are less likely to engage in mandatory or non-mandatory job training and demonstrate less motivation to learn (Colquitt, LePine, and Noe, 2000; Maurer, Weiss, and Barbeite, 2003; Renaud, Lakhdari, and Morin, 2004).
In response to a global question about the value of learning and growth to experiencing a good life, the percentage of workers age 60 to 69 indicating these were important to experiencing a good life did not differ appreciably from the percentage of younger workers giving the same indication. Young and old appeared to place equal value on learning and growth.
Next we asked, "How often does your work demand a high level of skill or expertise?" From a time-warped perspective, older workers resistant to learning new skills could be expected to perceive their jobs increasingly demanding higher levels of skill and expertise than their younger peers. A second question inquired, "How often do you learn new things at work ?" From the time-warped view, because they are resistive to learning situations, older workers would be more likely to perceive they are forced to learn new skills and acquire new information than younger workers. Still, no evidence was found of a statistically significant difference in the response to these two questions across the age groupings.
Finally participants responded to, "Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with this statement: 'I do not enjoy being in situations that require me to change my old familiar way of doing things.'" The rather uncomplicated logic here is that if the time-warped perception that older workers are innately resistance to workplace change wrought by new knowledge and practices is true, the responses of older workers would be more strongly in agreement with the statement than would the responses of younger workers. Responses (reverse coded from the original study) ranged from 1 = Disagree strongly to 7 = Agree strongly. Here again, no statistical difference in response was found across the various age groupings.
These results certainly appear at odds with earlier research about older workers and training, and there are numerous factors that appear to moderate any relationship between aging and receptiveness to training and learning:
* First, training that is not generalizable across a wide range of tasks and not immediately task-applicable has been shown to carry less value for older workers than training related to specific tasks and behaviors (Rossnagel and Hertel, 2008).
* Second, management frequently fails to use methods that meet the needs of older workers, such as ensuring that training emphasizes "hands-on" learning techniques, is self-paced and takes a practical approach (Armstrong-Stassen and Templer, 2005).
* Finally, certain employment policies and practices such as age bias in recruitment, selection, performance appraisal and assignment to training opportunities act to dampen the enthusiasm of older workers for job-related learning activities (Spitulnik, 2006). Thus, we have reason to speculate that any aversion to job-related training and learning opportunities by baby boomers working past retirement age will be due more to work environment issues than to characteristics associated with aging.
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Gold Among Those Silver Hairs
Individuals were asked, "To what extent does the statement 'I feel that others respect the work I do on my job' describe the way you feel about your current job ?" From a time-warped view, if the accumulated knowledge acquired by older workers throughout their careers was perceived as being obsolete and outdated, this likely would be reflected in reports of older workers experiencing less respect for their efforts than younger workers, whose efforts would reflect more current knowledge and mastery. Responses to this questions (reverse coded from the original survey) ranged from 1 = Not at all to 4 = A lot.
Another question inquired, "How often do you feel that you are ignored or not taken seriously by your boss?" The logic here was much the same as with the previous question: If the accumulated knowledge acquired by older workers throughout their careers was perceived as being obsolete and outdated, it would be reflected in reports of being slighted or discredited by their boss more frequently than their younger peers because of a perception that they possess more current knowledge and mastery. Responses to this question (reverse coded from the original survey) ranged from 1 = Never to 5 = Once a week or more.
As illustrated in Exhibit 2, older workers reported, on average, a greater frequency of sensing that their work efforts were respected by fellow workers than did workers younger than 50 (p<0.05). Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) allow for such a reality in their discussion of crystallized intellectual ability. Crystallized intellectual ability is associated with a totality of educational and experiential knowledge, tends to increase well into middle age and includes both occupational knowledge and avocational knowledge (e.g., hobbies, music, culture, etc,). This knowledge is likely to be highly intuitive and will have been obtained and stored through an accumulation of episodes acquired over years of experience (Raelin, 2007).
This suggests that younger workers may well perceive baby boomers working past retirement as having an accumulation of unstated knowledge acquired from a lifetime on the job, knowledge that they desire but that organizational training can neither identify nor provide.
Furthermore, as illustrated in Exhibit 2 older workers reported, on average, fewer incidents in which their boss failed to take them seriously or ignored them than did their younger peers age 40 to 49 (p<0.05). Precisely why such a difference would pertain only in comparison to those 40 to 49 years of age remains unexamined. However, we may assume that rather than being devalued by their boss because of a perceived lack of applicable knowledge and experience, many baby boomers working past retirement age will be given greater deference than a large segment of their younger colleagues.
The Potential High Cost of Time-Warp
The three age-related stereotypes examined in this study undoubtedly have an extensive following throughout the general population, but our results suggest that they may not represent reality. Yet, even when presented with facts to the contrary, disconfirmation of stereotypes is a slow and begrudging process (Hilton and von Hippie, 1996).
An issue of great concern for any employer should be the potential of dissimilarities, such as age within an organization, and wrong beliefs, such as age-related stereotypes, to produce organizational fissures, fractures and fault lines. These organizational divisions can engender task conflict, emotional conflict and behavioral disintegration, all of which negatively impact performance (Li and Hambrick, 2005). Driven by time-warped stereotypes about older workers, expanding ageism by managers and younger employees carries the potential to produce real performance problems.
Nor should these concerns be taken lightly in the face of recent court rulings involving the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Because the courts have avoided second guessing employers when exercising their rights to make personnel decisions, individual plaintiffs traditionally have difficulty prevailing when filing claims under the ADEA using disparate treatment (Schuster, 2009). However, increased sensitivity on the part of older workers to ageist-oriented language and behavior in the workplace is likely to become a focal point in establishing a prima-facie case of disparate treatment.
With the Supreme Court's ruling in Smith v. City of Jackson, plaintiffs can now advance a claim of disparate impact under ADEA. A unique provision associated with any claim of adverse impact is that when the plaintiff is unable to point to a specific requirement or practice resulting in violation of the four-fifths rule, the law allows the plaintiff to bundle related practices together and challenge it as one discriminatory practice (Walsh, 2007). The potential of an increasing proportion of older workers perceiving discrimination because stereotypes are motivating ageist behavior may put many a firm at risk of an ADEA suit in which the plaintiff cites a bevy of comments from management and younger workers as the single discriminatory factor.
Employers must realize that older workers will not sit idly by and accept age discrimination; they will file age discrimination suits, and they will win (Santora and Seaton, 2008). The financial implications of this caution should not be ignored. Between 1994 and 2000 the median award in age discrimination cases was $268,926 (Rupp, Vodonovich, and Crede, 2005), and later settlements have ranged from $6.2 million to $58.8 million (McCann and Giles, 2002). Thus, it behooves employers to achieve a greater understanding of the influence of age-related stereotypes in the workplace and the potential for negative outcomes as these fractures, fissures and fault lines threaten to split things apart.
Escaping the Time Warp
What should you take away from this article ? Most importantly, stereotypical beliefs about older workers associated with past generations are not likely to hold for baby boomers. Existing perceptions regarding the energy of older workers will be much more complex than previously thought. Certainly, baby boomers likely will have less energy to engage in physically intensive tasks than their younger peers, but do not be surprised if their level of mental energy is indistinguishable from their younger peers. And, this admonition takes on greater importance since physically demanding jobs are decreasing and cognitively demanding jobs are increasing (Rix, 2006).
Consider that rather than avoiding intense work situations because of a lack of energy, baby boomers may be more energy efficient than their younger peers because their job and career history have enabled them to become proficient in recognizing, prioritizing and organizing resources critical to responding to intensive work demands. Furthermore, expect baby boomers to be less likely than their younger peers to report work-family conflicts resulting from job demands that leave little energy for home.
Reconsider the stereotypical view that older workers are less interested in job-related learning experiences and access to job-related training than their younger peers, and ensure that learning opportunities for older workers are not reduced. Certainly, you will need to incorporate training techniques to which older workers positively respond, but perhaps a greater training challenge will be to design and implement training programs for supervisors who will be managing older baby boomers.
Finally, recognize the value accorded the job knowledge and expert mastery represented by baby boomers working past retirement age. Take steps to identify the knowledge, skills and relationships that constitute the expertise possessed by these older workers and transfer this information to younger workers before the boomers exit from the workplace. Allow these aging baby boomers to mentor younger workers who desire to access their lifetime of work experience.
"Managers and companies need to work to change their attitudes toward older workers. Older workers are not just a commodity that can be thrown away ... It is incumbent upon managers to seize the opportunity to make the workplace a better place for all concerned." (Santora and Seaton, 2008, p. 104).
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Ernie Stark, Bellevue University
Ernie Stark is a faculty member at the Bellevue University College of Business in Bellevue, Nebraska.…
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Publication information: Article title: Lost in a Time Warp: How Age Stereotypes Impact Older Baby Boomers Who Still Want to Work. Contributors: Stark, Ernie - Author. Magazine title: People & Strategy. Volume: 32. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2009. Page number: 58+. © 2008 Human Resource Planning Society. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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