The Ideal Worker vs. the Older Worker

Posted Wednesday, July 25th, 2012| Comments (9) rule
The cost of unrealistic expectations
Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College
Phone: 617.552.1634

The ideal worker is aggressive, independent, unemotional, rational, and single-mindedly devoted at least to a career path, if not to an employer. So revealed documentation related to American employers that was gathered and analyzed more than a decade ago as part of landmark research on workplace flexibility.

When Joan C. Williams described these standards and discussed their consequences in her book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It, her eye was on the ways they “push women to the margins of economic life.” However, they also punish older workers, regardless of gender, who are willing and able to continue working past the age when they become eligible for retirement. Here’s how.

A big issue is professional ambition. Older workers who continue to have a deep sense of purpose but who are ready for jobs with less stress and fewer hours challenge stereotypes of the ideal worker. Many managers believe that full-time hours and constant face time is essential to effective job performance. Moreover, they assume that the best reward for a job well done is promotion to a post that’s even more demanding. These norms are reinforced by significant legal and financial barriers to ramping down. Workers who aren’t interested in the scramble for power and prestige are conundrums. Their bosses label them as uninterested or unengaged. This may, in fact, be the furthest thing from the truth.

What are some of the reasons why older workers who care about their jobs might nevertheless want to scale them back?

  • Changing family responsibilities. An older worker might be pulled by demands to take care of multiple generations: parents and other elders; dependent children; adult children who have not established their own households; grandchildren; a partner or spouse who is ill or disabled.
  • Health issues. Health issues generally increase as employees age, and managing them is likely to require time away from work
  • Changing priorities. Ideas about what’s important in life tend to shift as people age and become more aware of their own mortality. Older employees may want to invest their time and energy somewhat differently, both in and out of work, to reflect changes in their values.
  • Role loss/transitions. Older adults are more likely than younger adults to experience the loss of a spouse or partner, parent, friend, or other relative. There may be role transitions at play as well, including children leaving the home, or adult children and their families moving away. These transitions are stressful and divert time and energy from other pursuits, including work.

Employers or managers willing to make the workplace responsive to these pressures and incentives are likely to keep seasoned employees interested in their jobs and advancing the organization’s mission. That would be truly ideal, wouldn’t it?

9 responses to “The Ideal Worker vs. the Older Worker”

  1. Ellen Frank-Miller says:

    Christina, the framing of the ideal worker as a young work is spot-on, and the ways in which this disadvantages older workers is clear, as you describe so clearly. Helping employers shift their paradigm on this subject is so critical and resistance is puzzling!

    In manufacturing, no employer expects a single machine or employee to produce a product – each machine has a unique function and each function is critical to creating a quality product. No one expects an extruder to weld, or a welder to extrude.

    Similarly, thinking of older workers as a unique resource, with different, but equally valuable, characteristics than the “ideal worker,” may be a way for employers to reframe the role of older adults in the workforce.

  2. Christina, and Ellen, are both right on point about the skepticism faced by job applicants ready for a new stage of work that involves doing rather than climbing. This is true beyond manufacturing. It is also experienced by encore seekers interested in work where they can solves social problems while earning needed income.

    One of the ways to shift the paradigm of the “ideal” worker, and in particular the relevance of ambition, is to challenge myths by shining a spotlight on real examples in an organization’s workforce. Or in other workforces to encourage competition to recruit and include them. The general point is for workers in an encore, or other types of a second stage of work, to not hide in the shadows.

    My ambition in my encore career is to make a difference not get a promotion. And I’m applying experience and working hard to do that. What about you?

  3. Sonia Micek says:

    The Ideal Workforce is a blend of new and experienced. The older worker provides knowledge acquired from many positions and business cycles and also a work ethic that addresses the needs of the employer. Dependability, a willingness to wait for a reward and to sacrifice when the going gets tough. The new worker is filled with enthusiasm and a fresh point of view, not to mention efficacy with new technologies. The two working together provide balance. Healthy lifestyle habits extend the older worker’s productive years…Healthy habits are not always practiced by the young so absenteeism and presenteeism can be an issue.

  4. Doris Jones says:

    Recently, I stayed at a nationwide chain hotel. About 50% of the hotel’s workers appeared to be 60+. Most of the older workers perform several jobs. For example, you see the same staff working as waiters/waiters in the hotel restaurent, setting up meeting/hospitality rooms, working the check-in desk, and doing housekeeping chores. This means the hotel management sees the value in older workers who have acquired skills and experience in various jobs. These olders workers demonstrated excellent customer skills as well as performed their jobs outstanding.

  5. After interviewing hundreds of people in encore careers for a new book coming out in January, I can say with confidence that Phyllis is not alone. Older workers are often passionate and committed, but as Christine points out, that commitment isn’t necessarily fueled by the same kind of ambition that younger people feel. Of course, it’s dangerous to generalize; some people never seem to slow down. But it’s great to find others banging the drum for a workplace that acknowledges the need to recognize that there is no one “ideal” worker. If you’re interested in the movement around encore careers — second acts for the greater good — have a look at

  6. Wrong view says:

    Ever consider that the Older Worker is the Ideal Worker?

    As long as they are not lazy, eg kept motivated in the scenario the older worker is nearly in all cases the better option.

  7. Corliss Edge says:


    I recently started a doctoral program on Adult Learning in Higher Education and I decided to do a study on older adults in the workplace. My motivation for selecting this topic was because I noticed that most of the employees in my workplace were approximately 45 and older, mostly older. I addition, I notice that most of the quotas for long term training programs were given to the younger new employees and there was always a debate about giving any of these training quotas to seasoned employees.

    In reading your article and the comments, I know this is not an isolated incident. The economic situation we are in is forcing older adult worker to stay in the work place longer than they anticipated, some by choice and some have no other options. However, the employers do not support the employees that chose to stay and still want to be valuable assets. They are constantly offered severance packages or retirement bonuses to retire. I cannot imagine how devalued these individuals must feel.

  8. Christine says:

    As an older worker (60+) and into a new career path myself,I wholeheartly concur —-More and more we will need to realize that the person in the next desk, or standing beside you on the assembly line could be collecting CPP, and a private Pension (and even OAS) and still working if not for his/her own emotional well being then for their financial well being as well…..both reasons are worthy of reflection on the part of the younger generation….it’s called perspective.

  9. Corliss Edge says:


    When you did you studies on aging in the workplace, did you do any interviews with employees or focus groups? I have yet to find current qualitative studies on the older worker. It would be an interesting to have narratives from the employees in this situation. You cannot tell the full story with perspectives. I intend to study aging in the workplace but I want to find an perspective that is not saturated with literature.