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date: 05 August 2020

Work and Aging: Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

Global aging of the workforce will bring significant changes to almost every aspect of public and private life. Changing retirement patterns, changing occupational trends fueled by ever-evolving technological innovations, and changing motivations and capabilities of workers as they age mean the human resource management landscape of tomorrow will be vastly different and more challenging than it is today. This chapter provides an overview of the focus and perspective of the volume, and briefly highlights the sections and chapters that make up the volume.

Keywords: work, aging, retirement, technology


The baby boom generation represents the largest cohort ever to approach retirement. Because it is far larger than any generation before or since, its impact on the workplace over the next several decades will be dramatic, and requires that we give more attention to both the problems and potential of late-career workers. Indeed, global aging will bring significant changes to almost every aspect of public and private life. Patterns of work and retirement are changing. Shrinking ratios of workers to retirees increasingly strain existing health and pension systems, especially when these retirees are spending a larger portion of their lives in retirement. Family structures are changing. As life expectancies increase, including the numbers of the oldest old, four-generation families become more common. As a result, many working adults may feel the financial and emotional pressures of juggling multiple responsibilities—including the possibility of supporting children, older parents, and even grandparents simultaneously.

This book will examine the aging workforce from an individual worker, organization, and societal perspective. The volume is divided into six core sections: Demographic Perspectives, Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives on Workforce Aging, The Older Worker, Organizational Strategies for an Older Workforce, Perspectives on Work and Retirement, and Societal Perspectives on Work and Retirement. The volume concludes with an integration of salient highlights from the volume, and a discussion of where research and application should be directed in the future to address issues of an aging workforce.

Demographic Perspectives

A demographic perspectives section provides context for the volume by focusing on population and workforce demographics, and changing work and occupational trends. The world’s population is aging rapidly and will continue to do so for some time. Since these changes are mirrored within nearly all social institutions—from families to organizations—how these institutions adjust to the changing demographics will have a significant effect on the quality of life in the 21st century. Phillips and Siu provide a broad overview of the global aging (p. 4) phenomenon and its impact on the world of work in the section’s opening chapter, Global Aging and Aging Workers. This chapter is followed by a series of chapters that provide a more focused perspective on demographic trends and changes in the United States, Asia Pacific, Europe, and Canada.

Albright offers the reader an in-depth understanding of current workforce demographics and future work trends in the United States (Workforce Demographics in the United States: Occupational Trends, Work Rates, and Retirement Projections in the United States). Skirbekk, Loichinger, and Barakat, in their chapter The Aging of the Workforce in European Countries: Demographic Trends, Retirement Projections, and Retirement Policies, note that the demographic shifts under way in parts of Europe represent significant challenges from a labor market and pension system point of view, but emphasize the favorable trends with respect to education, skills, health, and remaining life expectancy past retirement age of future cohorts of retirees.

Across the countries in the Asian Pacific there exists probably more diversity in terms of aging populations than any other region. Some countries, like Japan, are at the vanguard of wrestling with the challenges of an aging population, while others will experience similar problems but several decades later. Van Katwyk’s The Changing Workforce Demographics in Asia Pacific: A Diversity of Work and Retirement Trends examines these evolving changes and how they are forcing a reassessment of business practices and human resource policies and procedures. Finally, Cronshaw concludes this section by tackling the impact of demographic shifts in Canada and the uniquenesses associated with that country’s population in Aging Workforce Demographics in Canada: Occupational Trends, Work Rates, and Retirement Projections.

Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives on Workforce Aging

The next section presents a number of theoretical and methodological issues relevant to work and aging. Baltes, Rudolph, and Bal introduce this section by providing some theoretical background and context for work and aging issues (A Review of Aging Theories and Modern Work Perspectives). These authors briefly review prevalent psychological, biological, and sociological theories of aging, and integrate them with current perspectives on the meaning/relevance of working for older workers. Next, Ng and Feldman (Aging and Participation in Career Development Activities) draw on a wide variety of theoretical perspectives (e.g., social cognition theory, life-space life-span theory, career timetable theory, social exchange theory, and socioemotional selectivity theory) to build a framework for drawing pathways through which aging can affect participation in career development activities.

Following these two theory-based chapters, Baird, Pitzer, Russell, and Bergeman (Studying the Aging Worker: Research Designs and Methodologies) and Schwall (Defining Age and Using Age-Relevant Constructs) address a number of methodological issues related to work and aging. First, Baird and colleagues discuss relevant issues in research design; relevant variables such as age, cohort, and time of measurement; the use of cross-sectional and longitudinal research designs; and useful analytical techniques that contribute to the study of work and aging issues. Next, Schwall focuses on the meaning of age and aging, and discusses definitions of age, and the use of age-relevant constructs in the study of work and aging. Finally, Perry, Dokko, and Golom conclude this section by offering a Person-Environment (P-E) fit theoretical perspective as a useful framework for viewing older workers. They discuss how individuals “fit” their jobs, coworkers, work groups, and organizations as a function of their age, and the ensuing consequences of this fit (The Aging Worker and Person–Environment Fit).

The Older Worker

Having established a basic understanding of demographic, theoretical, and methodological perspectives, the volume next takes a closer look at individual factors that influence the work performance of older workers. The section begins with a series of chapters that delve into greater detail on the physical capabilities (Maertens, Putter, Chen, Diehl, & Huang; Physical Capabilities and Occupational Health of Older Workers); cognitive capabilities (Rizzuto, Cherry, & LeDoux; The Aging Process and Cognitive Capabilities); personality and work attitudes (Heggestad & Andrew; Aging, Personality, and Work Attitudes); and job performance (McDaniel, Pesta, & Banks; Job Performance and the Aging Worker) of older workers.

Much of the research reviewed in this section supports the proposition that older workers have the capacity to be successful on the job and, more broadly, to maintain job and life satisfaction well into older age. Overall, research on aging suggests that physical and cognitive abilities do decline in older age. However, these declines may not always generalize to deficits in performance. Being successful in (p. 5) work and non-work situations is a function not only of an individual’s knowledge, skills, and physical and mental abilities, but also certain noncognitive attributes. In fact, older workers generally seem to adapt well and compensate for declining abilities by adjusting their approach to the job. Still, as these chapter authors point out, the literature is full of complexity and ambiguity, and much remains to be researched, analyzed, and interpreted.

The remainder of this section focuses on other relevant aging worker issues, including age stereotyping and age discrimination, job loss and job search among older workers, and the interaction of age and technology for older workers. Posthuma, Wagstaff, and Campion, in their chapter Age Stereotypes and Workplace Age Discrimination: A Framework for Future Research, note that older workers face a variety of age bias barriers in their efforts to remain employed or find new employment. Klehe, Koen, and De Pater (Ending on the Scrap Heap? The Experience of Job Loss and Job Search among Older Workers) combine earlier conceptual and empirical work from both the job-loss and job-search literatures, describe the continued employment and re-employment challenges often faced by older workers, and outline some actions that older workers might undertake to face the situation more successfully. Finally, Thompson and Mayhorn (Aging Workers and Technology) discuss how emerging technological innovations have the potential to facilitate or impede the success of older workers, who are expected to operate in an increasingly high-tech environment.

Organizational Strategies for an Older Workforce

The aging workforce presents organizations with numerous challenges and opportunities. As the large post-World War II cohort moves toward retirement eligibility, late-career workers will make up a larger and larger share of the labor pool. In addition, many of today’s older workers may delay retirement, or work well into it. As these changes begin to shape the world of work, it will be more important than ever for employers to recognize and address this evolution in their workforce.

Greller (Workforce Planning with an Aging Workforce) takes a broad-based perspective concerning strategic planning for an aging workforce, including consideration of the environmental opportunities and constraints that are likely to influence the recruitment, selection, training, and retention of employees with the proper mix of skills and experience to meet future job demands. Greller suggests that human resources has a vital role to play, both creating the capabilities to deal with a changing workforce and evaluating the workforce trends and new human resource technologies as they emerge to address it.

Whereas traditional recruitment research has predominantly examined attracting young employees from universities and colleges, looming demographic realities are forcing employers and researchers to learn more about attracting and retaining older workers. Consequently, Lievens, Van Hoye, and Zacher (Recruiting/Hiring of Older Workers) review the key components of the recruitment process, with an emphasis on attraction strategies that may be particularly applicable to an aging workforce. Paullin and Whetzel (Retention Strategies and Older Workers) examine what the survey research suggests are work-related preferences of late-career workers, and underscore the importance that employers understand the factors that motivate older workers to remain in or leave the workforce, which in turn will allow them to identify retention strategies likely to address those factors, and construct strategies that will enhance the motivation to stay, particularly for key older workers, and reduce the motivation to leave. Yet, they caution that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Baird and Griffin (Dynamic Learning: Discovering, Applying, and Updating Knowledge Faster than the Speed of Change) discuss the knowledge-retention challenges ahead surrounding a workforce that is aging. They suggest that to prevent significant loss of firm- and job-specific knowledge, companies must also implement knowledge-management and -retention programs. At the heart of any knowledge-retention strategies are knowledge-sharing practices an organization should use to transfer experience and expertise so it can be applied by others in the firm. These and other state-of-the-science strategies are discussed in this chapter.

Beier, Teachout, and Cox (The Training and Development of an Aging Workforce) discuss recent research on the cognitive abilities and motivational processes that change with age, and discuss the effect of these changes on interest in training, performance during training, and the likelihood that skills learned in training will be transferred back to the job. They conclude their chapter with a research agenda that highlights the need to use working-aged adults and field studies in training research. Sharit and Czaja (Job Design and Redesign for Older Workers) describe how the large variability in functional capacity, health, well-being, and preferences and (p. 6) needs articulated by older workers leads to a variety of job design outcomes. They also consider the roles of government at the federal, state, and local levels in creating the conditions that support educating employers about older workers, job design strategies to accommodate older workers and minimize the risks associated with hiring or transferring older workers, and health promotion programs.

Green, Eigel, James, Hartmann, and McLean (Multiple Generations in the Workplace: Exploring the Research, Influence of Stereotypes, and Organizational Applications) conclude this section by discussing the age-diverse workplace, and its potential for conflicting work ethics, dissimilar values, and idiosyncratic styles. They conclude that overall the research suggests that there may be more similarities than differences among generations, and warn against the proliferation of populist notions of differences among generations of employees in the workplace.

Perspectives on Work and Retirement

Retirement is a process that starts with planning and decision-making prior to the actual end of one’s working life and is not completed for years after the point of retirement. Retirement rarely occurs for one reason alone. Usually, a number of variables interact to influence the decision to retire, thus suggesting a need for more comprehensive models of the retirement process that examine a larger set of variables and their interactions. With an ever-growing contingent of older workers, many of whom expect to work past traditional retirement age, it becomes all the more important to develop a more thorough understanding of older workers, the nature of their interactions with work and the organizations for which they work, and the process of transitioning to retirement.

This section begins with a chapter on Career Planning for Mid- and Late-Career Workers (Voelpel, Sauer, & Biemann). These authors focus on the notion that, from an organizational viewpoint, strategic career development/management and succession planning programs can help organizations keep valued employees, especially older ones, and reduce human resources costs through retraining existing workers rather than hiring new ones. They can also help organizations more nimbly adapt to changing circumstances by keeping accumulated expertise and experience while continuously refreshing skills.

Next, Allen and Shockley (Older Workers and Work–Family Issues) note that, as the population continues to age, addressing the work–family needs of older workers will become an increasingly salient and pressing issue. The authors discuss the fact that employees of all ages experience the challenges of balancing work and family, ensuring continued career development, and accomplishing their personal goals, but these work and family concerns change across the life span, and research is needed that includes both individual and organizational perspectives and recognizes the unique work–family challenges of mature workers.

Dennis and Thomas (Retirement Planning: New Context, Process, Language, and Players) review the current state of retirement planning. They note that with increased longevity, decrease in retirement savings and investments, and new expectations of this life stage, the meaning of retirement and therefore retirement planning is changing. Dennis and Thomas suggest that a holistic approach to the retirement life stage is beginning to emerge among financial planners, life coaches, and enterprises that provide a meaningful transition into what has traditionally been called retirement.

Moen (Retirement Dilemmas and Decisions) then examines the work and retirement landscape, and notes that individuals/couples in their fifties, sixties, and early seventies are making strategic selections related to retirement. Dilemmas constraining their options result from a variety of demographic, economic, and technological shifts; structural lag in institutions; the fact that women and couples are increasingly facing retirement; and numerous personal situational factors. Consequently, scholars have yet to capture the impacts of these forces reshaping decision-making (and health outcomes) in this emerging phase of midcourse adulthood.

Wang (Health and Fiscal and Psychological Well-Being in Retirement) closes this section by reviewing both theoretical and empirical research regarding retirees’ health and fiscal and psychological well-being in retirement. He underscores the notion that understanding the antecedents and consequences of these wellness states in retirement is particularly important in improving adaptation to—and quality of life in—retirement. Wang also argues that researchers should focus on adopting a more dynamic view in studying these phenomena, noting that changes often occur in these socioeconomic and policy contexts, which can alter the research questions investigators ask.

Societal Perspectives on Work and Retirement

The volume’s final set of chapters examines societal influences on work and retirement decisions. (p. 7) This section begins with a closer examination of older workers’ employment and retirement patterns by various subgroups such as age, gender, race and immigration status, income, and occupation, with an emphasis on how these trends may differentially affect older workers’ future opportunities for continued work or retirement (Eyster, Nightingale, & Nidoh; Aging Workers, Demographic Subgroups, and Differential Work and Retirement Opportunities).

Next, Gutman (Age-Based Laws, Rules, and Regulations in the United States) takes a look at statutory, judicial, and regulatory law as regards workplace discrimination based on age, with an emphasis on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and related statutes. Chan (The Fiscal Challenge of an Aging Population in the United States) tackles the complexities of an aging population from a fiscal policy perspective, and suggests that the United States, and most other industrialized nations of the world, is not well prepared to deal with these issues. Chan notes that the fiscal problems related to aging in the United States are significant but far from insurmountable. While some fiscal adjustment is necessary, the longer such stabilization is delayed, the larger the adjustment will have to be because of debt accumulated while waiting for more fiscally sound policy.

Moon extends this discussion by a closer examination of Entitlement Programs, Retirement-Related Policies, and Governmental Politics. She notes that the retirement-related entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Supplemental Security Income—have substantially reduced poverty and enhanced the independence of older Americans, but fiscal pressures arising from high levels of overall government deficit spending and the rapid growth in spending on these particular programs make them vulnerable to policy changes.

For most of the 20th century, government and employer policies tended to be “pro-retirement,” encouraging workers to exit the labor force at a set age. Today, pro-work policies have largely eclipsed the pro-retirement policies that dominated prior to the 1960s, and as the population of the United States ages, there is increasing pressure to encourage people to work past the traditional retirement age. McNamara, Sano, and Williamson conclude this section by examining The Pros and Cons of Pro-Work Policies and Programs for Older Workers. Putting pro-work policies in the context of organized labor, economic conditions, and social conditions, the authors discuss the potential implications for employers, government, and individuals. They also suggest that over the next few decades, developing and implementing pro-work policies that protect and include more vulnerable populations is a task for organized labor, employees, employers, and policymakers alike.

Finally, we conclude the volume with a closer look at future trends in research and practice. Global aging, technological advances, and financial pressures on health and pension systems are sure to influence future patterns of work and retirement, and this changing work landscape underscores the need to examine and reshape employment and retirement policies to better meet the needs of older workers and their employers in the coming years. Myths of aging are found in a work organization’s culture, often reinforced by its policies and procedures. Changing long-held stereotypes is not an easy process. In part, it requires changing the perspectives and mechanisms on which age norms are based and age stereotypes operate. Changing workforce demographics and dynamics offer both opportunities and challenges for organizations, but to effectively engage older workers, new approaches to recruiting, workplace flexibility, and the right mix of benefits and incentives will be needed. In addition, a better understanding of workforce profiles—age, retirement eligibility, and expertise—is necessary to allow organizations to gauge who is adding different kinds of value, and who has the potential to add future value, and where to invest in workforce development, regardless of age. With an ever-growing contingent of older workers suggesting they will likely continue to work past traditional retirement age, it becomes all the more important that we increase our efforts to develop a more thorough understanding of older workers, the nature of their interactions with work and the organizations for which they work, and the process of transitioning to retirement.

Related Chapters

All chapters

Further Readings

Adams, G. A., & Beehr, T. A. (Eds.) (2003). Retirement: Reasons, processes, and results. New York: Springer Publishing.Find this resource:

Altman, S. H., & Shactman, D. (Eds.) (2002). Policies for an aging society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Find this resource:

Bergeman, C. S., & Boker, S. M. (Eds.) (2006). Methodological issues in aging research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.Find this resource:

Budetti, P. P., Burkhauser, R. V., Gregory, J. M., & Hunt, H. A. (Eds.) (2001). Ensuring health and income security for an aging workforce. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.Find this resource:

(p. 8) DeLong, D. W. (2004). Lost knowledge: Confronting the threat of an aging workforce. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Dychtwald, K., Erickson, T. J., & Morison, R. (2006). Workforce crisis: How to beat the coming shortage of skills and talent. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.Find this resource:

Hedge, J. W., Borman, W. C., & Lammlein, S. L. (2006). The aging workforce: Realities, myths, and implications for organizations. Washington, DC: APA Books.Find this resource:

Kinsella, K., & He, W. (2009). An aging world 2008. US Census Bureau International Population Reports P95/09-1. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Bulletin, Volume 60, No. 1). Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.Find this resource:

Schaie, K. W., & Willis, S. L. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of the psychology of aging (7th ed.). New York: Academic Press.Find this resource:

Shultz, K. S., & Adams, G. A. (Eds.) (2007). Aging and work in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource: