Do Older Workers Have Bad Work Attitudes?

Today 55 percent of the U.S. workforce is 40 or older. Because of negative stereotypes, several research studies have shown that older workers receive lower ratings in job applications, performance appraisals, and access to career development activities. The most prevalent age stereotype is that older workers are less motivated and engaged than younger workers. But is there any empirical support for the relationship between age and job attitudes?

An exceptional study published in Personnel Psychology entitled “The Relationships of Age with Job Attitudes: A Meta-Analysis,” tackled that question. The study looked at 800 previously published articles where 35 different attitudes toward work tasks, colleagues, and supervisors had been examined. The researchers also looked at how gender, race, and education level affected the relationships between age and attitudes.

The researchers found that “older workers have more favorable job attitudes (and/or less unfavorable job attitudes) than younger workers do, even though for some attitudes the difference is small or negligible” (p. 705). Age affected 27 of the 35 task-based (e.g. overall job satisfaction, intrinsic work motivation), people-based (e.g. trust, satisfaction with the supervisor), and organization-based (e.g. organizational commitment, loyalty) attitudes. They also found that the correlation between age and job attitudes was “stronger for older workers with longer organizational tenure, minority older workers, and older workers without a college education” (p. 705).

Although most of the relationships between age and attitude were positive, a few of the negative relationships were very interesting. Older female workers were less likely to be satisfied with promotions and had less trust in the organization. Older workers with a college education were more likely to experience role conflict.

Given the well established link between positive job attitudes and performance, this research suggests that an increasingly older workforce can be good news for employers. In addition to having positive job attitudes, separate research (Ng & Feldman, 2008) has shown that “older workers tend to exhibit greater citizenship and less counterproductive work behavior than their younger colleagues do” (p. 710).

If there is a “bad attitude” about older workers, it is being displayed toward them rather than by them. Hopefully this new evidence about the positive attitudes of older workers will help us appreciate them even more.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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