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Grow Your Business Your Team

Keeping Older Workers Engaged Means Fighting Age Stereotypes

Keeping Older Workers Engaged Means Fighting Age Stereotypes
Credit: Racorn/Shutterstock

Making sure older workers don't feel their organization has an age bias is proving to be a harder task than anticipated for many employers, new research finds.

While many companies try to approach the problem by ensuring their managers aren't falling victim to these biases, employers should be taking a more holistic approach to the issue, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Carol Kulik, one of the study's authors and a professor at the University of South Australia, said organizations that implement policies designed to recognize and encourage older workers not only send consistent, durable signals that lessen those employees' concerns about negative managerial attitudes, but also increase their focus on their work.

"This is not to suggest that individual manager's support doesn't have a salutatory effect on older employees," Kulik said in a statement. "But our research shows that organization-level practices have effects above and beyond those realized from managers' personal support."

Examples of specific types of mature-age practices that employers can institute include opportunities for older employees to take on challenging and meaningful new roles or work assignments and reverse-mentoring programs that team mature-age workers with more junior staff for the purpose of upgrading seniors' skills. [See Related Story: Older Workers Make More Careful Decisions]

The researchers found that these types of organizational efforts considerably reduce the stereotype threat that older workers feel, which in turn results in increased worker engagement.

Many employers, however, aren't taking this type of approach. The study's authors surveyed 666 employees over age 45 about the extent to which their company makes mature-age practices available. On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a very large extent), the mean estimate was just 2.

"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," Kulik said.

For the study, the researchers conducted three separate surveys of the same group of employees, who, on average, were 53 years old. The surveys queried workers about the extent of mature-age practices in their workplace, the age of their managers, the age composition of their work groups, their occupations, and their sense of age stereotype threats. The study's authors also measured job engagement by finding how out enthusiastic workers were about their job and how proud they were of their work.

The researchers found that having a younger boss, a younger work group and a manual job each significantly increased stereotype threats for mature-age workers, which in turn increased disengagement.

The study revealed that having mature-age practices in place was particularly effective in reducing stereotype threats. The threat was reduced by as much as one-third in cases where older workers had 20-something bosses.

The study's authors said the results show that there is considerable value in adopting management practices that engage older workers.

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

The study was co-authored by Sanjeewa Perera, a lecturer at the University of South Australia, and Christina Cregan, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.