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3 Things Stressing Older Workers More Than Younger Ones

A Portland State study found big differences between the generations

By Richard Eisenberg

Older workers are plenty stressed these days, especially about having enough money saved for retirement. But, according to a recent study from Portland State University’s psychology department, there are three things in the workplace itself that stress older employees much more than younger ones.

Older Workers
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The researchers — Ph.D. candidate Lale Yaldiz and Portland State psychology professors Donald M. Truxillo, Todd Bodner and Leslie B. Hammer — say that if employers address these three concerns, their older workers may well be happier and more productive.

What Workers Stress About

For the 12-month study, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the authors surveyed 243 municipal public works employees in a city in the Pacific Northwest ranging in age from 24 to 64. They measured three things employees stress about if they don’t have them at work, what the researchers call “resources.” They were:

Autonomy on the job — Also known as “skill discretion,” this is the degree to which a job provides opportunities to use a variety of skills, and the flexibility to choose from those skills.

Feeling respected and treated fairly by bosses — This was about how well employees thought their supervisors understood their job problems and needs as well as what they thought the chances were that the supervisors would use their power to help the staffers solve their work problems.

Having good relationships with their bosses — This is about the perceived fairness of the decision-making processes at work relating to things like pay, promotions and rewards.

“We found that older workers exhibited significantly more levels of stress when those resources were low,” compared with younger workers, said Truxillo.

For example, the authors wrote, “older workers who cannot feel that they are valued members of their organization may experience a sense of lower well-being than their younger counterparts.”

What Older Workers Prioritize on the Job

Older workers, the researchers say, tend to put more of a priority on their emotional needs and having socially meaningful interactions than younger ones. By contrast, said Truxillo, younger workers typically care more about gaining skills to get ahead in their careers.


Truxillo added that although all workers need autonomy, respect and good relationships with bosses, the stress of not having them had “a particularly strong effect on older workers.”

Although the study was conducted with blue-collar workers, Truxillo said he and his research team believe their findings would be true for older white-collar workers, too.

What Employers Could Do to Lower Stress of Older Workers

What could employers do to address these potential stresses for their older workers?

“Employers have to be careful about treating different groups differently based on their age,” cautioned Truxillo. That said, the authors wrote, work redesign interventions “should allow older workers the flexibility to craft their own jobs utilizing their own strengths and job experience accumulated over the years, providing them with opportunities and the autonomy to exercise different skills.”

The researchers also think better managerial training for supervisors would help support their older workers. The training sessions could help managers learn how to build strong relationships with older workers and communicate more effectively. The goal: to make the employees feel more valued as members of their work teams.

And, the authors said, businesses must demonstrate they’re not treating their older workers unfairly in their procedures and decisions. Next Avenue has found that some employers, for example, offer tech training just to younger workers because they don’t think the older workers would be interested or capable of learning. But many workers over 50 would like to keep their technology skills up so they’ll be less likely to be laid off, and they will be stronger candidates when job hunting.

As George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen recently wrote for Bloomberg: “Many companies should retool their methods to fit better with the experience and sound judgment found so often in older workers.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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