July 22 2011
Negative stereotypes can affect mature-age workers
workers who are sometimes stereotyped as less competent than their
younger colleagues – even as negative, bitter and “retired on the job” –
are the focus of a three-year study starting at UniSA.
Prof Carol Kulik from UniSA’s Centre for Human Resource Management says workplaces are not always friendly to mature-age workers.
“The stereotypes about mature-age workers usually include negative beliefs about their performance capabilities, dispositions and interpersonal behaviour,” Prof Kulik says.
“Unfortunately, mature workers can be perceived as slow thinking or incompetent; they might be described as depressed, complaining or bitter; and they might be expected to be timid, passive or resistant to change.
“The problem is, these are exactly the kinds of characteristics and behaviours that employees develop after working in an environment where they aren’t valued and their ideas aren’t given consideration. Ironically, workplaces that are not age friendly may be creating mature-age employees who reinforce the negative stereotypes.”
Prof Kulik will examine the experiences of mature-age workers in the job market and on the job, with the aim of identifying organisational policies and practices that create and maintain age-friendly work environments.
Prof Kulik says the recent economic downturn has meant considerable upheaval in employment opportunities.
“Employers have been trying to downsize and cut costs at the same time that employees are feeling the need to postpone retirement plans. So there is a great deal of pressure on mature-age workers to demonstrate their value to current and future employers,” she says.
“Over the long run, the pressure of working in an environment that doesn’t value them may lead mature-age workers to lose motivation and psychologically disengage from their work and their co-workers.
“That’s bad news for employees, whose financial situation may force them to keep working in a non-supportive environment, and for employers, who may find that these disengaged workers ‘retire on the job’.”
Prof Kulik says organisations can do a number of things to overcome the problem.
“Companies should watch for age-related words or images in organisational documents such as recruiting materials,” she says.
“Are you using phrases like ‘energetic work environment’ or ‘seeking ambitious employees’? Do your ads only present young people as employees or customers? These words and images might be interpreted by mature-age job seekers as implicit preferences for younger workers.
“Secondly, organisations should consider offering practices that are likely to appeal to mature-age workers. For example, does your organisation provide opportunities for mature-age workers to act as mentors to junior staff? Mentoring opportunities can leverage mature-age workers’ greater experience to benefit the entire organisation.”
Prof Kulik also has suggestions for mature workers themselves. She says when looking for jobs, mature workers should pay attention to environmental cues that might signal a workplace’s age friendliness, such as whether a wide age range is employed by the organisation.
“Once on the job, mature-age workers might need to deliberately contradict the age stereotype to ensure they are treated as individuals. For example, if mature-age workers are not routinely sent to training, a mature-age employee might need to proactively express an interest in upskilling to his or her manager,” she says.
Prof Kulik is looking for workers aged 45-plus across Australia to take part in her research. Participants will complete a series of brief surveys asking them to describe their work experiences and will be compensated for their time with a $20 Coles/Myer gift card.
To participate in the surveys, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (08) 8302 7788, or call or text 0413 375 155.
- Kelly Stone office (08) 8302 0963 mobile 0417 861 832 email email@example.com