Are older workers the same?
As the second part of Baby Boomers are moving towards retirement many European governments are trying to find solutions to adapt their healthcare and retirement systems to the changing age pyramid. The solution for most governments seems to be a change in the legal retirement age. Several countries have phased out early retirement schemes, the age for full retirement benefits has been pushed back from 65 to 67 (e.g. in the Netherlands), and politicians are already talking about pushing it back even further. The desired result is that older workers will participate more in the labor market. But many companies are not convinced that an increase in older employees is good for them. There are a lot of stereotypes about older workers and employees in this group are often treated as a homogenous group. However, previous research has shown that this is not necessarily the case.
Member of a group… or not
Some members of a group will identify themselves with the group they belong to. This is often the case if their group has a lot of status in the company. Members of these groups might even adapt their behavior to what is expected of them. Almost like the group of cool kids in high school, they will show behavior that is coherent to how other people perceive them. However, there are also low-status groups. There are many stereotypes regarding older workers such as: “they are slow to learn new things,” “they don’t want challenges in their jobs,” or “they are sick more often than younger employees.” Just as someone wants to be part of the group of cool kids, it is likely that someone does not want to be part of the older worker group or doesn’t consider themselves as being a member of that group because they do not identify themselves with the different ideas and stereotypes about its members. It is therefore likely that people will identify differently in terms of being an older worker.
Effects of being a member of a group
We tested if the extent to which someone identifies himself or herself as being an older worker has an effect on the way that they react to their employer not providing them with what they perceive as being owed to them. Employers promise many things and sometimes they deliver on these promises whereas on other occasions they do not. Our results show that older employees generally report a strong negative emotional state when a company does not deliver on made promises in areas such as rewards or contents of the job. This negative emotional state in turn leads to increased intentions of employees to change employers.
When we looked at the extent to which our study participants identified themselves as being an older worker we found that there are significant differences in terms of emotional reactions to the interpretation of not having received what the employer owed them. The group of participants that identified stronger with being an older worker had stronger negative emotional reactions to the employer not delivering on promises related to the job and the social atmosphere at work whereas the group that did not identify themselves as an older worker had stronger emotional reactions to the employer not delivering on promises about clear rules and regulations within the company.
What does this mean?
These findings have implications for researchers and practitioners. One of the main implications is that the reactions of participants is not the same for every type or area of promise, which means that companies should be careful to generalize their HR practices on categories of employees. Results further show that the identification as a member of a group is not always a given and that the extent to which employees see themselves as being part of a group has an influence on the way that they react to perceived negative events in the workplace. Thus a more individualized HR approach is called for if companies want to have a better fit between HR practices and individual employees.
By Johannes Kraak, professor at INSEEC Business School.
Article in press: Kraak, J.M., et al., Promises to employees matter, self-identity too: Effects of psychological contract breach and older worker identity on violation and turnover intentions, Journal of Business Research (2016),