How Old Are You? On the Job, It’s Not So Obvious

Alternative measures of age could help in understanding workplace dynamics

Posted Oct 24, 2013

By Lisa Finkelstein, Ph.D., guest contributor

How old are you? If you’re at least 3 years old (and I’m guessing you are), it seems like this should be a pretty easy question to answer, right? But for researchers in many different specialties of psychology and gerontology, the question is much more complex than you might think.

Chronological age—the number of years you’ve been alive—is the most common way we measure age when asking questions about all kinds of things that might change over time, or differ between age groups. For example, do employees become more satisfied as they age? Are older and younger workers motivated by different things? Is technological training more difficult for people as they age?

Changes in demographics, technology, and the global economy have contributed to people working later in life (by choice or not). So workers are more likely to interact closely with people from different age groups.

These interactions can sometimes be found even in virtual, multicultural, and/or multinational teams. Increased workplace age diversity and the changing nature of work have led to growing concerns about cross-age (or cross-generational) conflict in the workplace.

There is no lack of reporting in the media about Millennial workers (born after 1980) and how they supposedly differ from the rest of us; consulting services are even cropping up to assist in successfully managing this new generation.

There also has been much debate over the meaning behind findings regarding any differences found between generations. What is clear is that at any one chronological age or within any particular generation, the variability of values, attitudes, psychological and physical characteristics, and other worker attributes is vast.

So is age a meaningless concept to consider in psychology? Not at all. But it might be wise to open up to different ways of thinking about and measuring age to help us home in on some of the ways people from one chronological age group (or one generation) are likely to differ.

For example, let’s take two retail managers, Lee and Rhoda, who are both chronologically 40 years old, and therefore considered members of Generation X (those born 1965-1984). Lee has two teenagers, and has been with the same store for 13 years. Lee suffers from some chronic ailments and looks to be in her late 40s. Rhoda is a new mother of a 6-month-old boy. She took a job in retail after leaving a career in nursing, and has been with this store for 2 years. Rhoda is an avid runner, and often gets mistaken for being under 30. Is 40 the same experience for these two women?

Joann Montepare, a leading researcher in the phenomenon of subjective age (the age we perceive ourselves to be), suggests that attention to subjective age “presents an opportunity to explore new ways in which individuals define themselves and experience their lives” (2009, p. 42).

Several frameworks have recently emerged in the organizational psychology literature to help us expand how we see age at work. Three examples are the prism of age, the matrix of age, and the age cube of work.

Some researchers at the Sloan Center for Aging have likened their ideas of subjective age to the concept of a prism: depending on what perspective you consider, you get a different view of age. In their research (e.g., Pitt-Catsouphes, Matz-Costa & Brown, 2010) and also in their work training managers in organizations, they encourage the consideration of such things as generations, life-stage, physical and mental health, societal expectations, how long you’ve been in your organization or in your career, and how old you are compared to others in one’s environment. These different ‘lenses’ on age may be more or less important to different people, or may become more of a focus at different times and places.

Other researchers (Finkelstein, Heneghan, Jenkins, Siemieniec, & McCausland, 2013) have expanded on this original idea to suggest that some of the factors in the prism of age (such as life-stage, occupational age, physical age, etc.) could be very different depending on whether you look at it by itself, or in comparison to something or someone else. For example, you may be at a particular life stage that seems “young” compared to others around you, but “old” compared to societal expectations of where you should be at your age. Crossing the type of age focus with a point of view leads to a “matrix of age.”

Still other folks (Segers, Inceoglu, & Finkelstein, in press) suggest a third dimension, known as the organizational context, to clarify things even more specifically. To continue the above example, perhaps you are young in life stage compared to others in your current job, but old compared with those in your industry as a whole. This three-dimensional approach produces an “age cube.”

Research looking at how well these factors explain workplace behavior beyond chronological age is still in its infancy, but shows some promising results. As these measures get more refined, it will be exciting to see how they can be applied to help further understand age-related work dynamics.

In addition to the potential usefulness of considering subjective age when doing research important to understanding people in organizations, acknowledging the multiple facets of subjective age can help each of us in our own workplace and beyond.

Just as someone’s gender or race might elicit stereotypes that are inaccurate, the consideration of someone’s chronological age/generation group without knowledge of his or her life and work circumstances probably tells us little about the worker's characteristics, talents, interests, and preferences.

You may expect to have nothing in common with that guy in the next cube who is 20 years your senior, but maybe you are actually the same ‘age’ as him in terms of your life-events or your occupational age.

So, now what do you think? How old are you, really?

Lisa Finkelstein is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She is in the Social – Industrial/Organizational Area and teaches courses in social psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, and individual assessment in organizations. Her research interests include aging and work, mentoring relationships, stigma in the workplace, and humor.

References

Finkelstein, L., Heneghan, C., Jenkins, J., Simieniec, G., & McCausland, T. (2013). The matrix of age: First steps to building a new measure. Paper to be presented at the 2nd Congress of Age in the Workplace, University of Trento, Rovereto Italy, November, 2013.

Montepare, J. M. (2009). Subjective age: Toward a guiding lifespan framework. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 42-46.

Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Matz-Costa, C and Brown, M. (2010). ‘The prism of age: Managing age diversity in the twenty-first century workplace’, in E. Parry and S. Tyson (Eds.). Managing an Age Diverse Workforce. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Segers, J., Inceoglu, I., & Finkelstein, L. (in press). The age cube of work. In E. Parry (Ed.), New Perspectives on Generational Diversity at Work. London: Taylor and Francis.