Older executives’ job attitudes are on the slide: Evidence from Britain

Frustrated_man_at_a_deskby Michael White and Deborah Smeaton

For at least 20 years the most valuable corporate asset has been in decline.   In survey after survey, experienced managers and professionals report lower job satisfaction and lower organizational commitment.

And this deterioration in job attitudes predicts more quits and reduced job performance.  This is the main message from recent British research comparing employees’ attitudes between 45-plus workers versus under-45s, from 1992 thru 2012.

Over that period British firms, like those in other Western economies, have had to change continuously to survive intense competition.  Not surprising, then, if older, experienced employees feel the heat.

Expecting a late-career payback for their loyal service, instead they have repeatedly faced demands for still greater efforts.

High-level employees are harder hit than blue-collars

Of course the pressures of change apply to employees at all levels, not just the executive level.  It might be predicted that employees doing routine-type work – work with little intellectual stimulation – would react most negatively. In Britain these have relatively low levels of pay, low promotion chances and a less secure future.

But this prediction turns out to be wide of the mark.

True, older blue-collar workers do also show some decline in attitudes relative to younger colleagues at their own level.

But over the whole period surveyed, the senior managers and professionals lose at least as much commitment as the low-paid.  And whenever, at any particular time, there is a real gap in commitment, it is the executive group that shows up as worst affected.

The good time made no difference

In the late 1990s thru early 2000s, British businesses were the world’s most profitable.  The champagne flowed in London’s city bars.

Yet over that period, the organizational commitment of older managers and professionals dipped sharply compared to their younger executive colleagues.

The job satisfaction of senior managers and professionals also declined relative to employees at lower job levels.

Surviving the recession made no difference

Along came the major recession of 2008.   Insecurity was rampant.  People who held onto their jobs over this period might well have experienced a bounce-back in their motivation.

Once again, however, senior British executives expressed no such bounce-back.

Indeed, this was the group whose attitudes declined most over the whole 1992-2012 period.

It’s time to ditch some myths about managers and professionals

These findings point a need to be more realistic about managers and professionals.

They continue to be highly valued – witness their large advantage over other employees in terms of salary and fringes.

But to believe that this provides a copper-bottomed guarantee of loyal commitment over the whole career, is to believe a myth.  For them, as for other groups, loyalty and commitment depend on circumstances. Pensions, the key benefit for most people, have been declining in Britain since the millennium.

And pay and benefits aren’t everything.  Many managers and professionals don’t get the personal discretion in their jobs that they used to.  They are hemmed in by short-term multiple targets.

It has been well established that when organizations need to change, it is the managers and professionals who do most work and bear most of the strain.  And nowadays the need for change is all of the time.

The final myth is that managers and professionals don’t feel their age.  They too are human.

Does this signal the end of tenure privilege?

Do older managers and professionals feel the strain because of their age, or is it maybe that they feel cheated of the tenure privileges that were once taken for granted?

There has certainly been more talk about business’s need for new skills and know-how for ever-shifting market opportunities.  This could mean more uncertainty about the value of tenure for existing incumbents, and more need for them to craft a mobile career.

In Britain though there are no signs of increased disenchantment based on long tenure as opposed to age.   This could indicate an area of difference between Britain and the USA.  Large British firms have held fast to an ideal of long-term employment, with long tenures the norm.

What does seem to have shifted is the attitude toward different age-groups.

Older employee disengagement challenges public and corporate policy

The job attitudes of older employees are declining gradually and progressively, rather than catastrophically.  This gives time to develop policy responses.  The risk though is that the decline will not be noticed until it is far advanced.

Increased longevity poses grave risks for public finances.  Persuading employees to defer retirement is essential to buffer this risk. Thus disengagement, with the likely result of increased quit rates among older employees, is problematic.

Public policy generally uses fiscal and welfare policies to influence retirement rates.   But this is likely to be ineffective for senior managers and professionals who have substantial personal resources giving them enhanced choice.

Job quality needs greater attention.

It is important to keep older executive in the work-force both because they can contribute so much to productivity and to the public purse.

For corporate employers, increased quit rates may be less of an issue than the risk of declining performance among key knowledge-holders.  At present there appears to be little awareness of the issue.  The role of research is to bring the topic into focus so that employers develop innovative responses in good time.

Michael White, emeritus fellow at the Policy Studies Institute (PSI), University of Westminster, researches older workers and other HRM issues.  This report summarizes findings and ideas from an article co-authored with Deborah Smeaton, entitled ‘Older British employees’ declining attitudes over 20 years and across classes’, published in Human Relations.

Image: LaurMG via Wikimedia Commons

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