Friday, 8 April 2011

Modest, conventional and prepared to lead: Older adults in the workplace

Since 1983, the median age in the UK has increased from thirty-five to forty. The sun is setting on a fixed retirement age. So it's more important than ever for workplaces to understand how personality differs in older adults.

Previous research has reported a range of ways that ageing influences personality, such as declines in the Big Five factors of neuroticism, extraversion and openness.

James Bywater and Mathijs Affourtit of psychometric firm SHL wanted to extend this work using another instrument – their personality questionnaire, the OPQ - and to redress the age sampling bias common in occupational testing, where data on those over sixty is hard to come by.

They dug into a massive sample of 235,407 people who had sat the tool against a managerial/ professional benchmark, and categorised the data into four age brackets: 16-24, 25-44, 45-64, and 65+. It's worth noting that only 158 of the sample were in the oldest bracket, and of these, only thirty-six were women.

Focusing on notable findings rather than previous effects, moving from the younger to the older brackets the study found the following trends:

  • A preference for more conventional ways of working
  • A stronger desire to take charge of others that levels out over the last two brackets
  • Higher levels of modesty
  • Lower focus on career progression

For the last two findings, the trend did not hold for women in the 65+ bracket, who were not significantly more modest nor less ambitious than women in the 45-64 bracket; this may be due to the size of that sample.

As is common in this research, this was a cross-sectional study. We're still waiting for the holy grail: a comprehensive longitudinal study that revisits people over time. This would allow us to untangle a person's age from their birth cohort, such as the personality differences of being a baby boomer versus a millennial.

As the authors remind us, these differences are small, and dwarfed by individual differences; we would certainly never use them to inform selection decisions, for instance. However, given that many companies focus heavily on attracting Generation Y employees, it's important that changes to the workplace are in the context of understanding, rather than ostracising, older adults who will be a core part of our future economies.

ResearchBlogging.orgBywater, J., & Affourtit, M. (2011). Work personality in later life: An exploratory study. Assessment and Development Matters, 3 (1), 14-17

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