Oldies — but Goodies — in Complex Jobs

Topic: Performance, Goals
Publication: Journal of Vocational Behavior (JUNE 2010)
Article: Focus on opportunities as a mediator of the relationships between age, job complexity and work performance
Authors: H. Zacher, S. Heusner, M. Schmitz, M.M., Zwierzanska, and M. Frese
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Despite there being many compelling arguments for why age should be related to work performance (e.g., younger employees are less experienced, older employees have less drive), there is little evidence that such a relationship exists (except that older employees tend to engage in more organizational citizenship behaviors!).  According to Zacher and colleagues (2010), these null findings may be due to several competing factors which lead older employees to outperform younger employees and vice versa. In their recent study, Zacher et al. explored an individual difference known as focus on opportunities which refers to employees’ perceptions of the availability of future work-related options and opportunities.  The authors found that older employees tend to have a weaker focus on opportunities than younger employees, possibly because older employees receive less career support and are more focused on retirement than future work-related opportunities.

As Zacher et al. hypothesized, focus on opportunities is related to overall work performance (as rated by study participants’ coworkers) and helps explain why younger workers might outperform their older colleagues.

Thus, it appears that older employees have bleaker outlooks on their work-related futures and their work performance may suffer as a result. However, Zacher et al. found that employees working in complex jobs tend to have a stronger focus on opportunities than employees working in less complex jobs.  Job complexity seems to be particularly important for older employees since it helps them maintain a strong focus on opportunities.

Zacher et al. conclude their article by arguing that while job complexity is important for employees at all ages, it is particularly vital for older employees.  Presenting older employees with challenges at work (e.g., formal mentoring roles) can help them maintain their focus on work-related opportunities and keep their work performance high.

Zacher, H., Heusner, S., Schmitz, M., Zwierzanska, M.M., & Frese, M. (2010). Focus on opportunities as a mediator of the relationships between age, job complexity and work performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 374-386.