The ideal worker is aggressive, independent, unemotional, rational, and single-mindedly devoted at least to a career path, if not to an employer. So revealed documentation related to American employers that was gathered and analyzed more than a decade ago as part of landmark research on workplace flexibility.
When Joan C. Williams described these standards and discussed their consequences in her book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It, her eye was on the ways they “push women to the margins of economic life.” However, they also punish older workers, regardless of gender, who are willing and able to continue working past the age when they become eligible for retirement. Here’s how.
A big issue is professional ambition. Older workers who continue to have a deep sense of purpose but who are ready for jobs with less stress and fewer hours challenge stereotypes of the ideal worker. Many managers believe that full-time hours and constant face time is essential to effective job performance. Moreover, they assume that the best reward for a job well done is promotion to a post that’s even more demanding. These norms are reinforced by significant legal and financial barriers to ramping down. Workers who aren’t interested in the scramble for power and prestige are conundrums. Their bosses label them as uninterested or unengaged. This may, in fact, be the furthest thing from the truth.
What are some of the reasons why older workers who care about their jobs might nevertheless want to scale them back?
- Changing family responsibilities. An older worker might be pulled by demands to take care of multiple generations: parents and other elders; dependent children; adult children who have not established their own households; grandchildren; a partner or spouse who is ill or disabled.
- Health issues. Health issues generally increase as employees age, and managing them is likely to require time away from work
- Changing priorities. Ideas about what’s important in life tend to shift as people age and become more aware of their own mortality. Older employees may want to invest their time and energy somewhat differently, both in and out of work, to reflect changes in their values.
- Role loss/transitions. Older adults are more likely than younger adults to experience the loss of a spouse or partner, parent, friend, or other relative. There may be role transitions at play as well, including children leaving the home, or adult children and their families moving away. These transitions are stressful and divert time and energy from other pursuits, including work.
Employers or managers willing to make the workplace responsive to these pressures and incentives are likely to keep seasoned employees interested in their jobs and advancing the organization’s mission. That would be truly ideal, wouldn’t it?
Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College