Five Reasons to Adopt a More Critical Perspective on “Successful Aging at Work”

by Hannes Zacher and Cort Rudolph
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Critical Gerontology, INCG, Successful Aging, Work

Populations and workforces are aging around the globe. To maintain current levels of economic performance in the context of these demographic trends, governments increasingly require older workers to work longer and retire later, not only in developed countries such as Germany and the United States, but also in developing countries such as China and India (Hertel & Zacher, 2018). However, just working longer is not sufficient to address the challenges imposed by demographic change – policy makers and organizations also expect older workers to maintain their levels of work performance and characteristics associated with high work performance, such as motivation, positive job attitudes, and occupational well-being. Based on the gerontology and lifespan developmental literature on successful aging (for instance, the works of Paul and Margaret Baltes, 1990, as well as Richard Schulz and Jutta Heckhausen, 1996), we have described this maintenance of work-relevant outcomes as successful aging at work (Zacher, 2015) or active aging at work (Zacher, Kooij, & Beier, 2018).

Most organizational researchers and practitioners think of successful aging at work as something positive and desirable. After all, it seems like a good thing if more people remain healthy, engaged, and productive into their late careers. In addition, research suggests that older workers in intellectually stimulating jobs show a slower rate of cognitive decline after retirement (Fisher et al., 2014). However, grounded in a critical approach, we have explored the possible downsides of successful aging at work and adopted a more critical perspective on the topic (Zacher & Rudolph, 2017). Adopting a critical perspective suggests that researchers and practitioners should not only focus on the active role of workers in successful aging (Kooij, 2015a), but also on contextual factors, including job design, broader societal developments, and discourse about the meaning of aging and success (for a debate on this issue, see articles by Zacher, 2015b, and Kooij, 2015b). We argue that a more balanced and meaningful discourse on successful aging at work should consider the following five points.

1) The concept of successful aging at work is sometimes interpreted in a way that suggests that “success” depends only on individuals’ own efforts, emphasizing personal choice and control, responsibility, and self-reliance. For example, in their seminal Science article on successful aging, medical researchers Rowe and Kahn (1987) argued that lifestyle factors and active behavior play a critical role for the maintenance of health and cognitive functioning, the avoidance of disability, and sustained engagement in social and productive activities. However, this perspective neglects the influence of both genetics and structural factors, such as socioeconomic disparities and cumulative advantages and disadvantages that can affect whether or not older adults can remain active and successful at advanced ages.

2) Research on successful aging often overlooks the role of proximal and distal contextual factors, such as job design (i.e., how can workplaces be designed to have positive consequences for workers’ motivation and health?), supervision and leadership, organizational support, and societal attitudes toward older workers (e.g., age discrimination). Recent research suggests that older workers can use so-called “job crafting” strategies to adapt their jobs to their personal strengths, thus increasing person-job fit (Kooij, van Woerkom, Wilkenloh, Dorenbosch, & Denissen, 2017). However, it is also important to keep in mind that not only do older workers need to adapt to an ever-changing workplace, but that organizations should also adapt jobs and workplace settings in order to better suit the changing abilities and needs of older workers. In our view, it would be problematic if those people who have the physical, mental, and social resources to craft their jobs are used as examples by policy makers. Specifically, policy makers might use them as examples to suggest that, in principle, everyone is able to age successfully at work, if they only make the right choices, invest effort, and take responsibility for their own aging process.

3) Successful aging at work focuses primarily on the maintenance of work performance (as the main goal of most organizations) and productivity (as an important societal goal) as objective indicators of “success”. In doing so, it disregards other potential indicators, such as generativity (i.e., helping and guiding members of the younger generations) and/or wisdom (i.e., achieving excellence in knowledge and judgment). Indeed, research based on motivational lifespan theories suggests that people’s needs change with age, with older adults becoming increasingly interested in close relationships and personal growth as they age (for a review, see Rudolph, 2016). However, subjective criteria such as job and life satisfaction have been largely overlooked in the discourse on successful aging at work. Accordingly, critics have argued that the notion of successful aging acts as a moral convention that transfers the “busy ethic” of earlier career stages to later working life (Ekerdt, 1986; Katz & Calasanti, 2015). As such, this has the effect of making even the retirement phase of life align with a neoliberal and market-driven agenda of eternal productivity and marketability. In contrast, those individuals who are not productive are at risk of stigmatization and dependency in the context of a declining welfare state in many countries.

4) Research on successful aging in the tradition of Rowe and Kahn (1987) typically focuses on “normal” rather than “pathological” aging. This focus can contribute to marginalizing older workers with chronic illnesses and disabilities (Kensbock, Boehm, & Bourovoi, 2017), overlooking how instead, they may be supported to continue to perform their jobs well and be happy and valued members of the workforce. When emphasizing personal choice and control, the discourse on successful aging at work may have negative consequences for those older adults who are not aging successfully in the traditional sense. For instance, these older adults may be treated differently by colleagues, medical practitioners, and policy makers, social benefits and welfare entitlements may be taken away from them (e.g., paid leave of absence in case of chronic illness), and ultimately they may start blaming themselves for their illnesses and disabilities. Thus, successful aging may be seen as an exclusionary concept, because the experience of “success” may be restricted to few privileged members of society.

5) Finally, most research on successful aging at work adopts a quantitative-empirical approach that typically correlates age with different work outcomes. In contrast, critics such as Fineman (2011) have lamented that qualitative, social constructionist work has been neglected in this research area. Studies in the critical gerontology tradition analyze the power relationships underlying the perceptions and treatment of older adults, as well as their own narratives. However, this approach has rarely been used to better understand aging in the context of work and organizations (for exceptions, see Phillipson, 2004; Thomas, Hardy, Cutcher, & Ainsworth, 2014). We suggest that qualitative and critical approaches should be used to complement quantitative research on successful aging at work, as they can help capture the diversity and meaning of the aging experience in the work context. For instance, it would be interesting to investigate how the notion and societal importance of successful aging at work itself has an impact on older workers.

In conclusion, we are not suggesting abolishing the concept of successful aging at work. The concept was originally introduced and popularized to challenge age discriminatory notions of universal age-related decline and to take a more positive perspective on the aging process. However, advocates of successful aging at work often neglect that individual efforts are not sufficient to fight age discrimination and improve the situation of older workers. Thus, it is important that comprehensive models of successful aging at work take into account both individual characteristics and contextual-structural factors that may influence successful aging at work, and use additional criteria of success that better reflect the experiences of all older workers.


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