Aging And Work Motivation Research Paper

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In developed countries around the world such as Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, midlife (aged 45-65) and older (aged 65 and older) persons represent the fastest growing segments of the active workforce. Several factors contribute to this trend. Although mean age of retirement has declined by about 5 years over the past 5 decades, the rapid rise of life expectancy (by about 7 years over the same period) means that there is a much larger population of older individuals. In addition, recent changes in economic conditions, advances in health care, and significant shifts in sociocultural attitudes toward work and associated legislation have encouraged more individuals to engage in paid work well into their 7th decade of life. At the same time, low birthrates during the late 20th century and longer periods of educational training have contributed to a decline in the number of available younger workers, particularly in positions that require extensive training or work experience. As a practical consequence of these trends, organizations, of necessity, have focused increasing attention on midlife and older workers and on age-related influences on motivation, performance, and productivity. In response, a small but growing number of organizational scholars have examined the effects of aging and an age-diverse workforce for the development of a diverse array of human resource functions including the attraction, training, management, and retention of older workers.

The purpose of this research-paper is to provide an overview of age-related influences on work motivation and its outcomes. In the first section, we provide a brief overview of the key constructs and mechanisms involved in work motivation. In the second section, we discuss two major sources of age-related influences on motivation: (a) social-contextual influences and (b) changes in person characteristics over the life span. In the third section, we discuss four age-related change patterns in person attributes that influence key determinants of motivation and performance. In the fourth section, we consider indirect influences on motivation associated with age bias in managerial decision making and worker perceptions of age discrimination. In the fifth and final section, we describe how age-related factors may influence workplace motivation, and we describe implications of theory and research for the development of effective practices to sustain and promote work motivation in an aging workforce.

Work Motivation: An Overview

Work motivation pertains to the dynamic person and contextual factors that influence an individual’s ongoing choice among goals, allocation of personal resources (in the form of time and effort), and strategies implemented for goal accomplishment (see Kanfer, Chen, & Pritchard, in press). An individual’s motivation, expressed in terms of goal choice, behavioral intentions, intensity of effort toward goal accomplishment, and persistence has long been recognized as a key determinant of job performance and work adjustment. Over the past 80 years, diverse approaches to work motivation have converged on a broad picture of how motivational processes operate.

In the work context, motivation is typically conceptualized as a set of two interrelated processes—namely, goal choice and goal striving. Individual differences in cognitive abilities, skills, nonability traits (e.g., personality), motives, and interests along with situational factors have been shown to influence both the goals that individuals consciously adopt and the action-regulatory processes by which individuals pursue goal accomplishment over time. Theories that focus on the determinants of goal choice typically conceptualize the decision about which goal an individual adopts to be a function of conscious, cognitive processes directed toward maximizing anticipated positive outcomes and minimizing anticipated negative outcomes. In expectancy-value formulations, for example, the individual is posited to adopt task and performance goals based on consideration of three subjective perceptions: the perceived relation between different levels of effort and levels of performance (the effort-performance or E-P function), the perceived relation between different levels of performance and different outcomes (the performance-outcome or P-O function), and the perceived attractiveness of different anticipated outcomes (valence or V). Building on this model, Kanfer (1987) proposed that individuals seek to maximize the perceived E-P function, the perceived relation between different performance levels and their utility or value (performance-utility or P-U), and the perceived relation between different levels of effort and their utility or value (effort utility or E-U). Individual differences in person characteristics and situational influences affect the individual’s goal choice through their influence on these perceived functions.

In instances where a goal can be readily accomplished such as happens when one chooses to quit writing and turn off the computer, there is usually no need for further motivational processing. However, as is often the case at work, an individual’s goals may be complex, ill defined, and/or require a lengthy period to accomplish. Individuals seeking a promotion, for example, must demonstrate their appropriateness for the position by successfully completing a variety of tasks and projects. In these instances, the individual must employ self-regulatory or goal striving processes to ensure successful completion of the requisite tasks in order to achieve their long-term goal. Theories of goal striving and self-regulation posit that individuals who are committed to their goal will monitor their performance, evaluate their progress, and adjust behavior and affect to facilitate goal accomplishment. Substantial literature provides support for these activities, and further suggests that the motivational orientation that an individual adopts may influence goal striving and performance (see, e.g., Klein, Austin, & Cooper, in press). For example, several studies find that individuals who pursue goals for the purpose of learning and mastery respond more tenaciously in the face of failure or error compared to persons who pursue goals for performing well to prove their competency.

Theories of work motivation address purposive or conscious goal setting and striving, but tend to neglect implicit or affectively driven motivational processes that might interfere with conscious goal pursuit. In the personality domain, emerging research literature suggests that emotional reactions to a situation or work event (e.g., a supervisor’s reprimand) may prompt fast, nonconsciously mediated behavioral tendencies that disrupt or conflict with conscious goal accomplishment (see, e.g., Kehr, 2004). A student who accidentally loses a computer file while writing a paper, for example, may become frustrated and quit work despite his or her strong commitment to the goal of finishing the paper assignment. As research on emotion regulation suggests, self-regulatory processes that promote performance may be focused on behavior and/or affect. The regulation of disruptive emotions during goal pursuit represents an area of increasing importance in motivation research, particularly for jobs that make strong demands on composure in interpersonal relations.

Although most work-motivation theories emphasize the role of nonability traits and situational factors, an individual’s E-P expectancy is also importantly influenced by the individual’s perception of his or her cognitive abilities, knowledge, and skills relative to the demands of the job or task goal. As discussed later, developmental changes in the individual’s abilities, knowledge, and skills importantly affect the individual’s perceived competency and, in turn, motivation and performance.

Age-Related Influences on Work Motivation

The effects of age-related variables on work motivation may be usefully organized into three broad categories. The first category pertains to the influence of the life-span-linked interpersonal and social context, in particular the effects of generational or cohort differences that may lead midlife and older workers to experience fewer opportunities for skill development and work role change than younger workers or lead older workers to perceive themselves as less instrumental to the accomplishment of organizational goals. Social features of the work environment influence motivation among aging workers by altering the individual’s beliefs and attitudes toward the attractiveness of work and/or expectations of job success.

In contrast, the second category of age-related influence on work motivation, which is the focus of this research-paper, pertains to the way that age-related changes in the individual affect the adoption and pursuit of work goals. Numerous studies document age-related changes in cognitive abilities, job experiences, knowledge, motives, affect, and self-regulatory skills across the life span. These various changes (that occur at different rates both across the life span and among individuals) are posited to influence work motivation through their influence on an individual’s goals and the strategies and skills that are utilized for goal accomplishment.

The third, perhaps most well-known category of age-related influences on work motivation and performance pertains to the use of age as a grouping variable and the use of age-graded norms and age-based stereotypes in personnel decision making and interpersonal communications. Age bias and use of age stereotypes by supervisors and others in the workplace are generally considered detrimental to work motivation and organizational effectiveness. Over the past 15 years or so, a growing body of research has focused on the prevalence, origins, and malleability of these beliefs and attitudes.

Social Cohort Influences

Chronological age is closely associated with an individual’s life experiences. Generational or age cohorts encapsulate the common experiences of persons within a particular age range—historical experiences such as war, economic upheavals, and major technological innovations help to shape core values and beliefs that distinguish cohorts from one another. For example, the currently graying cohort group, referred to as the baby boomers (born 19461964), are often described as placing high value on personal growth, on health, and on retaining youth. In contrast, the smaller and next generation cohort, Generation Xers (born 1965-1980), are frequently described as placing high value on pragmatism, informality, global orientation, and self-reliance. The current entry-level generational cohort, Generation Yers or Millenials (born 1980-2000), are described as confident, as optimistic, and as placing high value on civic duty, flexibility, and achievement. In many organizations, three or more generational cohorts may work together. In some instances, distinct generational differences in attitudes and behaviors provide the basis for intergenerational conflicts and misunderstandings such as in-group bias that can serve to dampen motivation among one group or another. Several studies provide evidence of an in-group age-related bias, where younger and older workers rate same cohort employees more positively on work attributes than they rate different cohort employees (e.g., Forte & Hansvick, 1999). As such, the impact of intergenerational differences on work motivation represents an indirect, but potentially important factor that may contribute to feelings of discouragement, low work self-confidence, and job withdrawal among older workers.

Adult Development Influences

The second category of research, which is the focus of this research-paper, pertains to the pathways by which normative, age-related changes in cognitive abilities, job experiences, knowledge, motives, affect, and self-regulatory skills affect motivation related to the adoption and pursuit of work goals. Over the adult life span, physical competencies gradually decline and may encourage early retirement among workers engaged in physically demanding jobs. In developed countries, however, many jobs such as plumber, pilot, and surgeon place relatively few demands on physical abilities. Rather, these jobs tend to place strong demands on cognitive abilities and knowledge. In contrast, jobs such as call center representative and nurse place substantial demands on interpersonal skills. In these contexts, work motivation may change over the life span because of biological/maturational changes that contribute to difficulties in meeting task demands, change in the individual’s motive strength, and/or changes in the attractiveness of incentives for performance. Building on research in basic psychology, Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) identified four major themes associated with adult development over the life span that influence work motivation. These are discussed next.

Maturation Themes in Adult Development

Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) organized findings on the myriad maturational changes that occur across the life span in terms of four major themes. The first two themes pertain to two divergent developmental changes in intellectual development. The first and probably most well-known pattern is characterized by age-related loss and decline in select cognitive abilities. Findings in life span developmental psychology point to a general trend of decline in fluid intellectual abilities (Gf) once individuals reach early adulthood, which are reflected in performance of abstract reasoning and novel memory tasks. Although the trend toward lower performance appears to be robust, especially for tasks that are highly speeded, there are marked differences in individual trajectories, and marked changes may not develop until middle age and beyond (e.g., see Schaie, 1996). However, this pattern of gradual decline in critical cognitive processes associated with learning and speeded performance has led a number of scholars and practitioners to attribute poor job performance to age-related cognitive decline.

In contrast, as a growing number of researchers have noted, Gf represents only one part of the intellectual repertoire of adults. Crystallized intellectual abilities (Gc) represent the depth and breadth of domain knowledge and skills that an individual has (e.g., see Ackerman, 1996; Cattell, 1987). Where Gf abilities tend to decline during adulthood, the vocational (job related) and avocational (e.g., hobbies, music, literature, etc.) knowledge and skills that make up Gc tend to be stable or even show increases well into adulthood (up to about age 70). For example, findings obtained by Ackerman and his colleagues (e.g., Ackerman, 2000; Beier & Ackerman, 2001, 2003) have shown that middle-aged adults are at least as knowledgeable as young adults or more knowledgeable than young adults on a wide variety of different topic domains, ranging from social science, humanities, business and law, health and nutrition, and current events. Consistent with these findings, Schmidt, Hunter, and Outer-bridge (1986) found that individual differences in job knowledge represent a more potent predictor of job performance than measures of general, fluid-type cognitive abilities. That is, in many jobs, role-related knowledge that increases with age represents a strong predictor of job performance.

 The differential maturational patterns of intellectual development and knowledge across the life span help to explain why meta-analyses of the age—job performance relation typically show no significant relationship. Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) suggested that the cognitive demands of the work role and individual differences in job knowledge mediate the age—performance relation and affect work motivation through their impact on self-efficacy and performance expectations. All other factors equal, in jobs and work roles such as in air traffic controller, which place high-sustained demands on Gf, performance declines in association with age-related declines in Gf. In contrast, in jobs and work roles such as that of a lawyer or teacher, which place high demands on Gc and job knowledge, performance can be expected to remain stable or improve across midlife. As such, the influence of changes in cognitive abilities and knowledge on job performance critically depend on the cognitive demands of the job. As Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) suggested, one can expect the effects of age on performance to be more pronounced in jobs that place stronger demands on fluid intellectual abilities than on job related knowledge.

The third and fourth maturational patterns reported by developmental, personality, and life span researchers pertain to the development of the self. Specifically, studies suggest that individuals show reorganization and discontinuity in motives, goals, affect, and emotions across the life span. Carstensen (1998) and her colleagues’ research, for example, shows age-related differences in goals and emotion regulation. According to Carstensen’s socioemotional selectivity theory, action goals and motives during early adulthood are directed toward promoting self-concept through accomplishments. At midlife, as the individual’s focus shifts toward “time left to live,” there is a gradual tendency to shift attention toward goals that emphasize protecting self-concept and affirming a positive identity. McAdams (2001) and his colleagues’ research further indicates the emergence of generativity motives related to knowledge transfer and helping behaviors during midlife. From a motivational perspective, the reorganization of motives and goals for action across the life span indicates the existence of age-related differences in the attractiveness of work tasks and organizational incentives for performance.

A fourth and related maturational pattern pertains to changes in the strength of personality-based action tendencies across the life span. Recent meta-analytic findings by Roberts, Walton, and Viechtbaurer (2006), using longitudinal studies research designs, show that individual differences in personality traits such as conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness exhibit change across the lifetime. Specifically, social vitality (a facet of extraversion), neuroticism, and openness showed relative stability in midlife and slight age-related declines in late life, with social dominance (a facet of extraversion), conscientiousness and agreeableness showing age-related increases across mid- and late life. It is important to note, however, that such changes represent within-individual differences rather than between-individual differences. That is, individuals who are highly extraverted compared to others may exhibit decline in extraverted action tendencies across the life span, but can be expected to remain higher in extraversion compared to their cohort group. The normative change in action tendencies across the life span suggests that midlife to late-life workers, on average, may show higher mean levels of responsibility, duty, and cooperation and lower mean levels of social vitality, neuroticism, and openness to new experiences compared to younger workers. Similarly, in a cross-sectional study of motivational traits, Kanfer and Ackerman (2000) found that midlife adults showed lower levels of achievement-oriented motive strength than young adults and that midlife women showed lower levels of competitive excellence compared to both midlife men and young adults.

Adult Development And Work Motivation

In this section, we describe how the four maturational patterns previously described influence work motivation. Building on the expectancy-value formulation described by Kanfer (1987), we consider the impact of each pattern on the perceived E-P function, the perceived P-U function, and the perceived E-U function.

According to Kanfer and Ackerman (2004), the two patterns of decline and growth in intellectual development are posited to influence motivational processes largely through their impact on the perceived relation between effort and performance levels (i.e., the E-P function). Building on prior research that maps level of attentional effort (i.e., E) to level of Gf resources, age-related declines in Gf are proposed to lead midlife and older workers to perceive a steeper E-P relation in jobs and work roles that make high demands on Gf. That is, in jobs such as air traffic controller, age-related declines in Gf are posited to require older individuals to compensate for declining performance with higher levels of effort. Over the long term, however, sustained effort (undertaken to overcome decline in Gf) are likely to increase stress, reduce self-efficacy, and ultimately, reduce work motivation.

In contrast, in high Gc jobs, where the job or work role places high demands on domain knowledge and the use of well-developed routines, midlife workers can expect to perform at higher levels with less effort as a consequence of increasing job knowledge and skill development across the life span. Senior accountants, for example, may maintain high levels of performance with relatively less attentional effort than new accountants who are less familiar with procedures and tax laws. In contrast to jobs that place high demands on Gf, for individuals in high Gc dependent jobs, older individuals are likely to perceive a flat, asymptotic relation between different levels of effort and performance. As a consequence, motivational problems among midlife and late-life workers in these jobs are expected to more frequently involve boredom or perceived lack of job challenge. In these situations, the critical problem is insufficient motivation rather than failure of motivation to compensate for declining abilities.

Two aspects of how intellectual development patterns influence the E-P function in different work roles warrant note. First, many jobs and work roles make demands on both Gf and domain knowledge. Skilled surgeons, for example, may perform with relatively low levels of attentional effort for routine procedures. Unexpected and sudden, life-threatening problems, however, are likely to make demands on fluid intellectual abilities and require substantial effort (e.g., see the study of surgeon age and operative mortality by Waljee, Greenfield, Dimick, & Birkmeyer, 2006). In work roles that contain an admixture of demands on both Gf and Gc, work motivation and performance may be more variable and situation specific. Second, perceptions of the E-P relation will depend on the specifics of the work role. Inaccurate perceptions of the E-P function may increase or decrease work motivation. Individuals who perceive that increased effort will compensate for declining fluid intellectual abilities, for example, may exert higher initial levels of effort. In contrast, individuals who perceive that increased effort will have insignificant effects on performance may become discouraged and subsequently lower work motivation, even in situations where changes in effort might yield appreciable benefit in performance.

The third and fourth patterns in adult development, related to changes in the self, are posited to influence work motivation through their influence on the perceived relation between performance and outcomes (i.e., the P-U function) and the perceived value of effort expenditures (i.e., the E-U function). During midlife and late life, motive exchange can be expected to alter the perceived utility or value of different levels and types of task performance (i.e., the P-U function). Specifically, evidence for motive reorganization suggests that midlife and older workers are likely to place a high value on performance accomplishments associated with the attainment of experiential or protective outcomes such as skill utilization, coworker recognition, and pay security. In contrast, compared to younger workers, older workers are likely to place a lower value on performance accomplishments associated with the attainment of instrumental outcomes such as promotions and competitive excellence. From a practical perspective, age-related motive reorganization suggests that pay-based incentives for performance may be less effective in motivating older workers than they are in motivating younger workers.

The perceived utility of effort (i.e., the E-U function) refers to the intrinsic value of effort expenditure, and it is generally represented as an inverted U-shaped function in which very low or high levels of effort expenditure are regarded less positively than moderate levels of effort expenditure are. Although there is no direct evidence to date on age-related change in the form of the E-U function across the life span, Kanfer and Ackerman (2004) proposed that age-related changes in personality action tendencies are likely to shift the function such that older workers are more likely to find higher levels of work effort to be more aversive when compared to younger workers. Heckhausen and Schultz (1998) obtained indirect evidence to support this notion. They found that, compared to younger workers, older workers report a decrease in the salience of work goals and an increase in the salience of nonwork effort expenditures related to health and social activities. From a work motivation perspective, these changes are likely to reduce the adoption of work goals that demand substantial and sustained expenditures of effort in the absence of powerful and personally meaningful incentives.

Age as a Grouping Variable

The preceding discussion of social and maturational influences on work motivation suggests that there is no structural difference in the mechanisms underlying work motivation among younger and older workers. Rather, changes in work motivation occur as a function of changes in personal characteristics, interests, task demands, and organizational systems that provide individuals with personally meaningful incentives for resource allocation and action. That is, within individuals, changes in competencies, capabilities, interests, job demands, and organizational systems alter work motivation and/or work-related outcomes such as job performance over time. From a cross-sectional perspective, however, age-related differences in work motivation may also occur because of contextual factors such as when supervisors or workers use age as a grouping variable in the development of norms that influence decisions pertaining to the allocation of opportunities, resources, or incentives. Supervisors, for example, may hold age-related stereotypes with respect to personal characteristics such as learning, adaptability, dependability, maximal performance capability, and interpersonal skills. These stereotypes, in turn, may influence decisions about whether older workers are afforded training or promotional opportunities. Similarly, older workers who perceive themselves as part of the older workforce may believe that they will be more likely to experience discrimination and thus become more easily discouraged with respect to employment opportunities. As such, motivating an aging workforce also requires consideration of how age stereotypes may influence managerial decisions. In this section, we discuss findings on age bias and consider how age-related beliefs and stereotypes held by organizational personnel and older workers may influence work motivation.

Age Bias and Stereotyping

A prominent concern in the study of workforce aging pertains to the detrimental influence that age bias or negative stereotyping of older workers may exert on older worker opportunities and, by extension, work motivation. In the United States, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 prohibits discrimination against a person (over 40 years of age), based on age with respect to hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. Legislation that prohibits age discrimination prior to age 65 and extends protection against unfair terminations after age 65 was also passed in the United Kingdom in 2006. Nonetheless, there is widespread concern that age bias in the form of negative stereotyping of older workers may dampen work motivation and disadvantage older workers. Evaluations based on age group stereotypes, rather than the individual’s capabilities, can reduce the likelihood that older workers are hired and offered training or promotions.

In an examination of this question, Gordon and Arvey (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of lab and field studies investigating the relationship between age and personnel evaluations. Results obtained based on 39 studies conducted between 1963 and 1998 showed a small but significant estimated true score correlation between age and personnel evaluations (weighted by sample size) of r = -0.11. As expected, younger individuals received more positive evaluations than older individuals did. Perhaps more importantly, however, Gordon and Arvey found that several variables that significantly moderated this relation. First, year of publication significantly moderated the mean effect size such that less age bias was found in more recent studies. Second, age basis was moderated by worker category such that age bias was more negative for job applicants than job incumbents. Third, age bias was greatest when only limited information was provided about either the job or the target individual. Based on these findings, Gordon and Arvey suggested that negative age bias appears to be “less of a problem today than it was in previous decades” (p. 485). They noted, however, that the negative effects of age stereotypes on personnel decisions appears to depend on the extent the decision maker possesses information on the individual and the job necessary for making judgments of person-job fit and the extent to which the decision maker utilizes stereotypes in forming judgments and evaluations. Gordon and Arvey’s findings also imply that organizational personnel may engage in suboptimal motivational practices for older workers because of employing age stereotypes when considering the match between the individual and perceived requirements of the job. For example, managers may perceive an older worker as less capable for new learning and consequently evaluate the individual as less suitable for a position that requires adaptability or new skill learning.

The conceptualization of age bias in terms of person job fit or lack of fit suggests several new directions for additional study on work motivation. Panek, Staats, and Hiles (2006), for example, examined occupations in terms of college student perceptions of perceived cognitive/intellectual, physical, sensory-perceptual, and perceptual motor demands for occupations. Using cluster analytic techniques, Panek et al. identified four occupational clusters, described as high risk, professions, skilled trades, and white collar. Jobs in the high-risk cluster were characterized by relatively high physical and by relatively lower cognitive demands and included positions such as police officer and firefighter. Occupations in the professions cluster required higher levels of education and tended to place high demands on cognitive processes and low demands on physical abilities. Examples of jobs in this cluster include airline pilot, dentist, and college professor. Jobs in the skilled-trades cluster including plumber, chef, and industrial painter consisted of work roles that involve some specialized training, moderate demands on perceptual-motor skills, and relatively fewer perceived demands on cognitive abilities. Positions that comprised the white-collar cluster including jobs such as bank teller, sales associate, and word processor were rated as placing high demands on cognitive and perceptual-motor abilities and low demands on physical abilities.

In a second study, Panek et al. (2006) had college students rate the perceived recommended retirement age and perceived optimal performance age for the occupations that comprised each cluster. Results indicated a significant correlation between recommended retirement age and perceived optimal performance age for occupations in the high-risk and profession clusters but not in the skilled-trades or white-collar clusters. Consistent with expectations, occupations in the high-risk cluster were perceived to have a lower recommended retirement age than occupations in the professions or white-collar occupations were but were not significantly different from the skilled trades. With respect to optimal performance age, perceived optimal performance age was lower for persons in the high-risk and skilled-trades cluster occupations than it was in the white-collar and professions occupations.

Panek et al.’s (2006) findings have two important implications. First, the results indicate that at least among younger adults, distinct, age-related norms for optimal performance and retirement exist. Second, these age-related norms are associated with the perceived cognitive, perceptual-motor, and physical abilities demands of the job. On one hand, these results suggest that age-related norms for performance and retirement are not capricious but rather correspond, at least in part, to maturational patterns in adult development and perceived task demands. On the other hand, however, the reliance on age-related norms in personnel evaluations may serve to attenuate managerial efforts to take account of worker-specific performances and/or dampen managerial initiatives to improve person-job fit by role restructuring or to sustain work motivation among capable older workers. Further research to examine the generalizability of age-related norms for performance and retirement among persons in different age groups and with more extensive job knowledge is needed.

Another approach to understanding age influences on work motivation stems from recent work by Treadway et al. (2005) on the moderating influence of age on the organizational politics—job performance relation in three studies. Findings obtained in this indicate that age moderated the relationship between heightened perceptions of organizational politics and job performance. Specifically, they found a negative effect of politics perceptions for older worker performance but not for younger worker performance. They suggest the moderating effect of age was not likely due to chronological age per se, but rather a result of older workers having endured more organizational stressors than younger workers and, as a consequence, experiencing a higher level of cumulative resource depletion than younger workers. This proposed explanation is consistent with a developmental view indicating a decline in the effort-utility function and suggests that decrements in job performance among older workers in response to organizational stressors may be in part related to cumulative motivational losses over time.

Results of several surveys indicate that older workers also perceive themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the workplace due to their identification as an older worker. As a consequence, these workers may be less motivated and more easily discouraged in seeking employment and training opportunities than workers in other age groups are. However, Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe and Hummert (2004) found a more complex pattern with respect to perceived age discrimination and age group identification. Specifically, they found that older persons reported less age discrimination than younger persons did across life domains. Further, perceived age discrimination in general was positively related to age group identification and psychological well-being for older adults, but not for younger adults. Although this study did not focus on workplace events, the results do suggest that additional research is needed to examine whether higher levels of age group identification and interaction among older workers may confer a positive, compensatory influence on work motivation in the face of perceived age bias.

Aging, Work Motivation, And Successful Adaptation

Emerging theory and research on the influence of aging on work behaviors and outcomes suggests a complex picture with respect to both motivation and work outcomes. Early investigations, building largely on advances in cognitive aging theory and research, focused on the implications of developmental decline in cognitive abilities for job performance. Although developmental decline in select cognitive processes was associated with decline in some jobs, evidence quickly accumulated that other age-related changes in knowledge, skills, and job relevant traits such as dependability are positively associated with job performance. These two opposing processes are probably responsible for the findings of a near-zero correlation between age and performance (e.g., see Cleveland & Landy, 1981). As a consequence, contemporary formulations of work and aging have adopted a more flexible fit perspective, in which the impact of age on job performance is viewed as best evaluated in terms of the fit between age-related changes in the individual and work role demands.

An individual’s motivation for work and motivation in the workplace has long been regarded as a critical factor in career success and effective job performance. The graying of the workforce and concerns about future labor shortages have spurred organizational personnel to consider how adult development and age-related experiences may influence motivation for work and best practices for motivating older workers. In this section, we consider implications of recent theories and research for basic personnel selection, training, and management functions.

Motivation for Work: Recruitment

Workforce trends suggest an increasing number of older workers will continue to seek new and “bridge” retirement positions over the next few decades. From an organizational perspective, interest in this segment of the workforce poses both challenges and opportunities. Consistent with research findings that show older persons to be more agreeable, more reliable, and more effective in emotion regulation than young adults are, employers in customer service industries have shown increased interest in hiring older workers for positions such as food service worker, call center worker, and cashier. The typically lower pay and reduced healthcare benefit levels associated with these jobs, however, often represents a strong disincentive for older workers.

From a motivational perspective, an individual’s decision to participate in the labor force is affected by two major factors: (a) personal resources and attitudes and (b) institutional and economic conditions (cf. Warr ,2001). Among individuals who have sufficient financial resources, motivation for employed work is likely to be the individual’s beliefs about the perceived benefits of the work role. Consistent with adult development formulations, midlife and older workers are more likely to focus on the intrinsic and immediate benefits of work rather than on the extrinsic and long-term benefits. Specifically, among older workers, motivation to participate in the workforce is likely to be strongly affected by the extent to which the job is perceived as fulfilling experiential and security goals rather than instrumental motives for upward mobility or career progress. Consistent with this view, job characteristics that have been identified as particularly attractive for midlife and older workers include security, health benefits, flexible work schedules, and opportunities for control over work assignments. Such characteristics emphasize the utilization of existing knowledge and skills and promote a positive sense of self.


Several studies show that older workers tend to learn new job related skills more slowly than younger workers do (see Kubeck, Delp, Haslett, & McDaniel, 1996). Such findings appear to have often been used to explain why older workers may be more reluctant to engage in employee development activities and used to suggest that older individuals are disinclined to undertake new skill learning. However, other studies suggest a more complex picture of the relationship between age and skill training. For example, Warr and Birdi (2003) found that the age-related decline in voluntary development activities could be fully accounted for by individual differences in learning motivation and education. Older workers with more education and higher learning motivation engaged in similar levels of voluntary skill development as younger workers. Similarly, Maurer, Weiss, and Barbeite’s (2003) findings indicated that reluctance to engage in new skill learning among older workers may be associated with evaluation apprehension and/or perceived incompetence in using new training technologies. These results suggest that age-related differences in speed of new skill learning should be distinguished from the influence of individual and situational variables that may facilitate or hinder motivation for skill training. Interventions to enhance motivation for skill learning and training effectiveness include, for example, the use of self-paced learning schedules that de-emphasize age-related changes in learning speed, training formats that permit active participation in the learning process and exploratory task learning, cooperative and collaborative training methods that embed learning in a positive social context, the use of structured part-task and subgoal training methods to reduce memory load, and the provision of more highly valued short-term incentives for learning and transfer.

Managerial Practices

To date, very few studies have examined the efficacy of different managerial and leadership practices as they influence work motivation among incumbent older workers. In a series of laboratory studies investigating age-related differences in goal setting on memory tasks, West, Thorn, and Bagwell (2003) found that no significant age differences in the motivational effectiveness of goal setting techniques when goals did not disadvantage older adults. In particular, older adults showed higher levels of persistence than younger adults when goals were relevant and challenging, and feedback emphasized positive progress. These results suggest that goal-setting approaches to improving performance remain an effective managerial practice for older workers when goals and feedback are appropriately tailored.

Maturational patterns further suggest that managerial and leadership practices to sustain work motivation among midlife and older workers must take into account developmental changes in motives and incentives for action. Increased interest in skill utilization at midlife suggests that motivation among older workers may be enhanced by task assignments that involve transmission of knowledge to others, for example, in the form of mentoring. Similarly, the use of social incentives in the form of peer recognition awards rather than monetary or promotional rewards for high levels of performance may be more effective in motivating older workers. Findings obtained by Treadway et al. (2005) on the moderating influence of age on the politics-performance relation also suggest that managerial practices that provide older workers with opportunities for resource replenishment, in the form of directed project assignments and leaves for accomplishment of community outreach objectives of organizational relevance may also be beneficial to work motivation. Additional research to evaluate these and other innovative managerial practices for their influence on enhance sustained work motivation and performance among midlife and older workers are sorely needed.

Role Transitions and Termination

In previous centuries, retirement was associated with a complete withdrawal from the workforce. Increasingly, however, older workers show a more gradual disengagement from work, involving transition into bridge retirement positions that may include a restructuring of the work role or movement into a different work role altogether. From an organizational perspective, the transition to bridge retirement positions affords a unique opportunity for maximizing the contribution of effective older workers and maintaining positive attitudes toward the organization. Effective organizational practices to maximize motivation through role transitions and retirement are likely to involve a combination of supervisory practices and incentive systems that enhance worker percepts of control and well-being. Supervisor practices that facilitate perceptions of procedural fairness may be particularly important for sustaining work motivation through the transition process in situations characterized by declining worker performance.

Summary And Future Directions

Successful accommodation to the growing proportion of midlife and older workers represents an unprecedented challenge in contemporary organizations. Although scientific progress in the study of developmental changes associated with aging provides critical information about age-related changes within individuals, relatively little research has been conducted on the processes by which these changes influence work motivation and performance. However, research to date provides no evidence to support the notion of a universal decline in work motivation among midlife and older workers. Rather, recent work suggests that the effects of an individual’s age on work motivation reflects the complex interplay of three major factors: (a) changes in the person’s abilities, knowledge, skills, interests, and motives relative to job demands and opportunities, (b) age-related attitudinal, normative, and behavioral communications between supervisors, coworkers, and the older worker, and (c) organizational flexibility in policies and practices that enable work role restructuring to maintain an effective fit between person capabilities and job demands. In other words, the influence of aging on work motivation appears not to stem from chronological age per se, but rather from age-related changes in the person, the context, and the work role. Across the life span, maturational changes in intellectual abilities, job-related knowledge, interests, and motives alter the intrinsic value of various incentives for effort expenditures at work. Age-related increases in job-related knowledge and effort may partially compensate for declining cognitive and physical abilities but may be ultimately insufficient for sustaining motivation or performance in work roles that place high demands on age-sensitive abilities. In contrast, for older workers performing jobs that place strong demands on existing knowledge and skills, motivational deficits may occur as a function of boredom and the perceived lack of opportunity for personal growth and development associated with higher levels of performance. In both situations, organizational practices that permit restructuring of the work role to accommodate age-related changes are essential for sustaining work motivation.

The effects of aging on work motivation are also importantly influenced by the social context in which work occurs. Communication of age-related norms for expected benefits from learning and performance, and supervisory use of age stereotypes in personnel decisions pertaining to performance evaluations and employee development readiness exert negative informational and affective influences on worker motivation. Generational differences in values related to different strategies for work accomplishment may also create conflicts that reduce motivation by creating percepts of “outsider” status among older workers. Although recent findings suggest that overt age bias in personnel decision making may be on the decline, additional research is needed to identify the informational and affective pathways by which supervisory and routine interpersonal communications with coworkers may influence work motivation among midlife and older workers.

Interest in developing organizational strategies directed toward enhancing motivation among older workers is on the rise. Over the past few years, a growing number of companies have implemented new programs aimed directly at increasing and retaining older workers. Some programs, for example, offer opportunities for altering the work role using temporary assignments that provide novel opportunities for skill utilization. Other programs emphasize the use of age-graded incentives for worker participation in development activities. Yet other programs emphasize training supervisory personnel in the avoidance of overt and covert age bias in personnel decision making. Such programs appear promising, and they should be systematically evaluated in terms of identifying the program features that most importantly influence older worker motivation and work outcomes.

In modern societies, individuals may spend 5 or more decades of life engaged in organized work. An individual’s work contributes to sense of identity and personal well-being and provides the context in which many major life objectives are accomplished. From an individual perspective, work motivation among older persons can be reasonably considered as an important determinant of social adjustment and psychological well-being. Among employed older workers, a decline in work motivation may be brought about by conflicting demands for effort expenditure in nonwork domains of life and/or by perceptions of declining utility for sustained effort investment to the job. Organizational policies and practices that reduce work/nonwork conflicts and increase the perceived value of job effort can be expected to enhance work motivation. From an organizational perspective, work motivation among older workers also represents a critical issue for sustaining competitive advantage in human capital. Future research, to investigate the impact of specific organizational practices and interpersonal communications in the context of maturational change, represents an exciting and useful direction for advancing the study of work motivation, organizational effectiveness, and public policy.


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