Skip to main content

Sloan Center News

To Engage or Discourage? Perceptions and Keys to Leveraging Older Workers

30 July 2009—The economic downturn is visibly affecting more than job availability for older workers; job quality is also suffering. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there has been a staggering 30% increase in claims of age discrimination over the previous year. In 2008 a record 95,402 discrimination claims were filed, evidencing an increase of 15% in total claims. Troublingly, over a quarter of the total claims – 24,582 claims, or 25.8% – were related to age discrimination. These claims were filed by workers 40 and older, defined by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 as “older workers.”

According to EEOC’s Acting Chairman, Stuart J. Ishimaru, an increase of this magnitude in charges filed has not been seen since the early 1990s.

“Whether trying to retain or obtain a job, older workers may find themselves susceptible to unlawful age-based stereotypes and discrimination,” comments acting EEOC Chairman Stuart Ishimaru. “Employers’ conscious or unconscious stereotypes about older workers may cause them to underestimate the contributions of these workers to their organizations. As a result, older workers may be disproportionately selected for layoffs during reductions-in-force.”

AWARENESS – Stereotypes of Older Workers

Employers have often tended to regard older workers with ambivalence. In part, this is due to older workers’ tenure pre-dating the introduction of new practices or systems. Employers may associate older workers with “out-of-date” procedures, preferring to recruit or retain younger workers instead. A significant problem with this perspective is that it feeds existing older worker stereotypes, raising doubts about their commitment to the organization and their willingness to continually develop and advance.

Research studies do find that employers recognize that older workers contribute at least some value to their organizations. However, negative attitudes about older adults persist. Employers have tended to view older workers as weaker, less ambitious, more opinionated, and having lower motivation than younger workers.

Workplace Realities

In 2006, however, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College conducted a study – the National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development – whose results challenged these perceptions. The study included a number of questions about U.S. employers’ perceptions of positive and negative attributes that employees at early-, mid- and late-career stages typically bring to the workplace.

Findings suggest that employers do recognize differences in the attributes they feel different employees possess. In fact, many employers acknowledge the value that older workers contribute. For example, contrary to some stereotypes of older workers, employers responded that it is "very true" that late-career employees take initiative (32.1%) – a response similar to perceptions of early-career and mid-career employees, (30.7% and 34.5% respectively). Overall, higher percentages of employers attributed important business-relevant characteristics to their late-career workers than to those in early- or mid-career. In fact, the findings of this study suggest that employers in the United State express less positive assessments of their younger workers.

Yet despite these findings, decades of research have documented many obstacles to continued work in later life. Factors contributing to less friendly/responsive climates for older workers include:

  • * persistent stereotypical perceptions regarding older workers;
  • * limited job opportunities for older workers and competition for jobs among generation groups; and
  • * business incentives and other pressures to retire contribute to climates less friendly and responsive to older workers.


Other obstacles may include perceptions among their co-workers and managers that older employees are not as capable as younger ones.

ASSESSMENT - Managing Older Workers

How can employer and employee needs be met in a mutually beneficial way?

Several studies have found that older workers tend to have more positive perceptions about the value-added by older workers than do younger workers. The 2007 Citisales Study – funded by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work – collected data from over 6,000 employees working for a large retail chain, CitiSales. The study found that job quality is critical to keeping employees of all ages, including older employees, engaged. Unfortunately, stereotypes about older workers can negatively affect their engagement with the organization. Research suggests, though, that responsive supervisors, who sanction flexible work arrangements, are crucial to older worker engagement. This, in turn, can lead to greater organizational success.

Engagement is Key

How engaged are older workers?

Results from the CitiSales Study indicate that older workers (55 and older) overall are significantly more engaged than younger workers (54 and younger). In fact, engagement appears to increase with age among cohorts working in the environment we studied.

In general, the older workers we surveyed reported very positive perceptions of themselves. In addition to having the highest engagement scores, they saw themselves as more reliable than younger workers, more productive, and having great loyalty to the company.

What are the drivers of engagement for older workers?

Supervisor effectiveness appears to be the most important component of job quality in predicting employee engagement for both professional and hourly older workers. This is not surprising, given the supervisor’s role in setting up work conditions, assignments and schedules in a 24/7 work environment such as CitiSales. Generally, CitiSales employees are expected to work at least some “non-standard” hours; the schedules often vary week to week; and the supervisor holds the key to any exceptions that need to be made.

Our findings also suggest additional essential components to job quality, all related to supervisor effectiveness:

  • * Flexibility – this is one of the factors in evaluating the supervisor’s effectiveness, which in turn keeps employees engaged
  • * Having clear understanding of the job
  • * Having the resources to do the job
  • * Job fit – feeling that makes use of the employee’s skills and abilities without too much bureaucracy
  • * Having opportunities for training and development and promotions – this factor predicts supervisor effectiveness, but it also predicts employee engagement directly for the hourly workers.


In earlier analyses of our data we found that younger workers were more likely than older workers to see older workers as “checked out,” as lacking enthusiasm for growth and development. Additionally, older workers were more likely to perceive that younger workers are given preference in training and development opportunities.

Though the stereotype that older workers are simply “hanging in there” until retirement may be easy to fall into, it does not ring true. To the contrary, our findings suggests that having opportunities for growth is a major factor in keeping older workers engaged and involved in their work. Feeling that one’s chances for promotion are good is one of the most important factors for professional workers.


Are you aware how engaged your workforce is? Have you thought how your organization might continue to leverage the strengths of your older workers? Have you unwittingly fallen victim to inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes about older workers and their engagement, commitment or ability to continue learning?

Our findings from the CitiSales Study suggest a clear take-away for business leaders who want to retain their older workers, both hourly and professional.

Older workers can be highly committed to an organization and highly engaged in its success. Keeping them engaged involves a few factors:

  1. A responsive supervisor. Above all, employees value a supervisor who is supportive when problems arise, who cares about the effects that work demands have on personal and family life, who values the employee and recognizes him or her for a job well done, who encourages the employee to come up with new and better ways of doing things, and who makes clear the criteria for performance evaluation. In fact, the CitiSales Study found supervisor effectiveness to be the most important job factor for older workers.
  2. Flexibility and consideration of scheduling preferences. While each work environment requires individual creative strategies for making flexible work arrangements possible, doing so is clearly feasible. There are also different approaches to making flexibility work for hourly and professional workers. For both, having the flexibility to make accommodations for personal and family responsibilities is a very important factor in seeing a supervisor as responsive. Our research indicates that flexible work arrangements are as important to older workers as they are to younger workers.
  3. Avoid of assumptions about retirement plans. Particularly in today’s economy, older workers are far from being “checked out.” Often they desire continued training, development opportunities and promotions. These workers are more engaged when offered chances for continued growth and advancement within the company. They are clearly less engaged and less committed when they perceive inequities in promotional opportunities, either for older workers or for employees of any age who take time off for family reasons.
  4. Talk to your employees. Of course, some older workers do want to either phase out or reduce hours or stay at the level of responsibility they have. The only way to find out what they want and where they might be headed is to ask them.

For more information on the Citisales Study, please read:

  • * Responsive Workplaces for Older Workers: Job Quality, Flexibility and Employee Engagement (October 2007)
  • * Generational Differences in Perceptions of Older Workers’ Capabilities (November 2007)
  • * The CitiSales Study of Older Workers: Employee Engagement, Job Quality, Health and Well-being (November 2008)