PRODUCTIVE AGING AND WORK
A Life-Span Perspective
Within the context of work, a life-span perspective holds that patterns of change and transition occur throughout the working life. As a result, the scope of productive aging includes all age groups of workers and is not limited to “older workers,” however that group may be defined. Other assumptions of a life-span perspective include:
- The aging process is multidirectional and involves both losses and gains. As workers age, some dimensions of functioning decline, while others improve. For example, physical stamina gradually decreases with age, but accumulated knowledge or “wisdom” tends to gradually increase. These different “trajectories of change” are important to understand in designing a workplace where all workers are able to perform at an optimal level.
- The aging process is characterized by plasticity. The term plasticity refers to the potential to change in response to one’s experiences. This aspect of aging is demonstrated by a growing body of research indicating that the rate of change for some abilities (e.g., physical functioning) can be affected by specific activities (e.g., regular exercise). Animal research also provides evidence of the neuroplasticity of the brain and its remarkable ability to change with experience throughout the life-span.
- The aging process is multidimensional. Three basic dimensions of the aging process are biological, cognitive, and socio-emotional. Each dimension has many sub-components (examples from the cognitive dimension include attention, working memory, and social intelligence)that interact with the other two dimensions, and is subject to some level of environmental influence. All three dimensions are important to understand in designing a work environment that encourages productive aging.
- The aging process is contextual. The changes that occur as workers age do not take place in a vacuum. Some important contextual settings are families, friendships, community, workplace, and society. These contexts may, in turn, be influenced by historical, economic, and cultural factors. In the case of the workplace, the nature of work and how it is structured, the type of workplace relationships an individual develops, and specific work-related events (e.g., career progression, avoidance of disability, retirement) can all play an important role in productive aging.
In summary, a life-span perspective assumes that the aging process is complex, occurs across different dimensions throughout the working life, and represents the product of many interacting causes, both inside and outside of the worker. As a result, two workers of the same chronological age may differ greatly when it comes to functional capacity, health, job performance, and work motivation. Perhaps most importantly, the changes that occur with aging are often manageable, particularly if intervention efforts begin early in the working life.
- Baltes, P.B., Lindenberger, U., & Staudinger, U.M. (2006). Life-span theory in developmental psychology. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 1: Theoretical models of human development (6th ed., pp. 569–664). New York: Wiley.
- Sigelman, C.K., & Rider, E.A. (2015). Life-span human development, 8th edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.