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Keeping older workers keen about their jobs takes more than trying to reduce managers’ age biases, study shows

December 4, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642, press@aom.org

Companies seem blindsided by the challenge, research suggests

With increasingly elderly populations an inescapable fact of life today in advanced economies, how are employers coping with this development? With less than flying colors, according to a new study. “Statistics suggest that organizations may be blindsided by this grand challenge,” the study states.

"Age stereotypes are notoriously persistent in organizations," begins the paper in the December issue of the Academy of Management Journal. "Mature-age employees are commonly perceived to be less productive than their younger counterparts. They are also viewed as lacking initiative, disinterested in learning or developing, and resistant to change."

What to do about such biases and about the stereotype threat they pose – the fears they raise – among mature-age workers? Companies' most common approach is to try to change individual managers’ minds and hearts, but "managerial attitudes are stubbornly resistant to change," the study's authors contend.

Yet, what they find to be the most effective means of countering elders’ fear of age bias – company practices that formally recognize and encourage mature-age workers – falls well short of being a corporate priority. Asked to estimate the extent such mature-age practices were available in their workplace, the study's sample of 666 employees aged 45 and above indicated them to be meager: on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a very large extent), the mean estimate was a mere 2.00.

"Unfortunately, organizations have been slow to adopt mature-age practices, even though our research shows them to be highly effective in reducing stereotype threat and increasing job engagement among older workers," comments Carol T. Kulik of the University of South Australia, who carried out the research with her university colleague Sanjeewa Perera and Christina Cregan of the University of Melbourne.

"Policies crafted to recognize and encourage mature-age workers specifically," Prof. Kulik continues, "send consistent, durable signals that lessen those workers’ concerns about negative managerial attitudes and increase their focus on their work. This is not to suggest that individual managers’ support doesn’t have a salutatory effect on older employees. But our research shows that organization-level practices have effects above and beyond those realized from managers’ personal support.

"In sum, managers' attitudes matter, but organization-level practices matter more and are also more enduring."

To test this, the researchers surveyed workers 45 and older about the existence in their workplaces of a variety of mature-age practices, including the following:

■ Opportunities for mature-age employees to take on challenging and meaningful new roles or work assignments;

■ Reverse-mentoring programs that team mature-age workers with more junior staff for the purpose of upgrading the seniors’ skills;

■ Opportunities to have jobs redesigned or to be transferred to less stressful or strenuous work;

■ Phased retirement programs that permit employees to ease into retirement.

Probing the difference such practices can make, the study finds they considerably reduce stereotype threat. And lowered stereotype threat pays off, the study finds, in heightened worker engagement.

Thus has the study, in its words, “identified an important (but hidden) antecedent of mature-age disengagement that can be addressed by organizational practices.” And in case someone might miss the significance of this, the professors cite research suggesting “that an organization loses $3,400 for every $10,000 of a disengaged employee’s salary.” And the cost is likely to be particularly high with “a mature-age employee whose years of experience are likely to place him or her at the high end of organizational pay scales.”

If the relative scarcity of mature-age programs is disquieting, the study does find cause for encouragement in the effectiveness of programs that are more widely implemented by employers – what are called “high performance practices.” These are practice bundles that apply to all workers regardless of age and “are designed to enhance employees’ skills, motivation, and empowerment… High-performance practices signal an organization’s interest in making a long-term investment in employees, motivating employees to reciprocate with higher engagement in their work roles.”

The professors surveyed workers about the existence in their workplaces of a variety of high-performance practices, including the use of attitude surveys to identify and correct morale problems, the encouragement of worker participation and input, and the sharing of information with employees about the organization's financial performance and strategic plans. Asked to estimate the extent of these and other high-performance practices in their workplace – on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a very large extent) – workers provided a mean estimate of 2.93, which indicates that these programs are considerably more prevalent than mature-age practices (which, recall, received a mean rating of only 2.00).

Encouraging though the prevalence and effectiveness of high-performance practices may be, they are, nevertheless, no substitute for mature-age policies, the study states, since the two practice bundles “operate independently and additively to influence mature-age worker engagement... In general…mature-age practices were more effective than high-performance practices in reducing stereotype threat."

The surveys that are the basis of these findings were carried out with a sample of 666 employees 45 years or older, 65% male, who were recruited through newspaper advertisements. Averaging 53 years of age and as old as 75, representing a wide variety jobs and industries, participants each remained with a single employer through the period of the study, during which they responded to three surveys.

• In the first survey they provided varied information about themselves and their employers and the extent of mature-age practices in their workplaces.

• In the second, about eight months later, they reported the age of their managers (average: 47.5, range 24-70); the age composition of their work groups; their occupations (which ran the gamut from managerial and professional to unskilled); the extent of high-performance practices in their workplaces; and their sense of stereotype threat, which was measured through response to such statements as “Younger people find it easier to work at my workplace than older people do” or “My manager expects me to do poorly because of my age.”

• In the third survey, about a year after the second, they responded to statements that measured job engagement, such as “I am enthusiastic about my job,” “I am immersed in my work,” and “I am proud of the work I do.”

Survey responses revealed that having a younger boss, a younger work group, and a manual job each significantly increased stereotype threat for mature-age workers, which in turn increased disengagement. As indicated above, mature-age practices were found to be particularly effective in reducing stereotype threat – indeed by as much as one third in cases where mature-age workers had twenty-something bosses.

In conclusion, the professors reiterate the “considerable value in adopting management practices that engage mature-age workers, a large and growing proportion of the workforce in many countries… Given our evidence that high-performance practices and mature-age practices both deliver benefits, organizations should consider adopting both.”

The paper, “Engage Me: The Mature-age Worker and Stereotype Threat” is in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed, bimonthly publication. With more than 18,000 members in 124 countries, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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