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«Journal of Occupat-ional and Organtzat-ional Psychology {V)9G),(^, 57-81 Printed in Great Britain 57 © 1996 The British Psychological Society Is job ...»

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Journal of Occupat-ional and Organtzat-ional Psychology {V)9G),(^, 57-81 Printed in Great Britain 57

© 1996 The British Psychological Society

Is job satisfaction U-shaped in age?

Andrew Clark*

CEPREMAP, Paris, and DELTA, Paris

Andrew Oswald

ESRC Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics

Peter Warr

Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield, UK

It is generally believed that job satisfaction increases linearly with age. However, there are persuasive arguments, and some empirical evidence, that the relationship is Ushaped, declining from a moderate level in the early years of employment and then increasing steadily up to retirement. This paper investigates that relationship, using survey responses from a large sample of British employees. For overall job satisfaction, satisfaction with pay, and satisfaction with the work itself, a strongly significant U-shape is observed. Ordered probit techniques, which take account of the ordinality of satisfaction data, are used to analyse the relationship between these forms of satisfaction and a large set of individual and job characteristics. Despite the inclusion of 80 control variables, significant coefficients persist for the age and age-squared variables (the latter representing the non-linear component). The paper thus provides strong evidence for a U-shaped relationship between age and job satisfaction. Furthermore, it is shown that a similar age pattern occurs for employees' context-free mental health, suggesting that both job satisfaction and context-free mental health are affected by non-job factors of life-stage and personal circumstances. The importance of changes in expectations with increasing age is emphasized.

There have been many investigations into the relationship between age and different forms of job satisfaction. Significant variations across age are commonly found, with older employees tending to report higher satisfaction than younger ones (e.g. Doering, Rhodes & Schuster, 1983; Glenn, Taylor & Weaver, 1977; Warr, 1992), Observed age differences in overall job satisfaction are greater than those associated with gender, education, ethnic background or income (Clark, 1993;. Weaver, 1980).

However, two questions remain unanswered. First, given that there is a positive relationship between age and job satisfaction, is it simply linear or does it contain a nonlinear component? And, second, what underlying variables can account for the pattern of job satisfaction differences between age groups?

•Requests for reprints should be addressed to Dr Andrew Clark, DELTA, 48 Boulevard Jourdan, 75014 Paris, France, 58 A ndretv Clark, A ndretu Oswald and Peter WanIn the first respect, there is a discrepancy between early and more recent findings.

Herzberg, Mausner, Peterson & Capwell (1957) suggested that 'in general, morale is high among young workers. It tends to go down during the first few years of employment. The low point is reached when workers are in their middle and late twenties or early thirties.

After this period, job morale climbs steadily with age' (pp. 5-6). This U-shaped pattern was interpreted in terms of new entrants to the labour market feeling positively about their novel situation and their transition to adulthood; however, increasing boredom and a perception of decreasing opportunities was thought to lead to some reduction in job satisfaction during subsequent years. In due course, it was suggested, a person comes to terms with his or her occupational role (perhaps having moved out of relatively unrewarding positions), and a subsequent increase in job satisfaction is observed.

This general pattern was also reported by Handyside (1961) using data on the overall job satisfaction of 1000 British men and women, but it has more recently received limited support. Weaver (1980) presented mean overall job satisfaction scores (men and women combined) from seven General Social Surveys in the United States between 1972 and 1978. In all years except one (1974), respondents aged below 20 reported the lowest satisfaction. The same finding was obtained in an Australian study by O'Brien & Dowling (1981). In Hunt & Saul's (1975) data from male Australian white-collar employees, agesquared (representing non-linearity) made no significant contribution to the prediction of overall job satisfaction.

Overall job satisfaction scores obtained during 1977 in the US Quality of Employment Survey were found to be U-shaped with respect to age, but earlier investigations using the same series (data gathered in 1969 and 1973) found particularly low satisfaction among the youngest group (Quinn & Staines, 1979). Janson & Martin (1982), Kalleberg & Loscocco (1983) and Wright & Hamilton (1978) have reported detailed multivariate analyses ofthe 1973 data (which exhibited no U-shape). The presence of particularly low job satisfaction among young employees appears to be generally accepted (e.g. Doering etal., 1983).

Yet the account provided by Herzberg and colleagues has been supported more recently by Warr (1992). In a study of two axes of job-related well-being (not satisfaction itself), a statistically significant U-shaped pattern was found, with elevated well-being at the youngest ages. It would therefore be valuable to examine in an up-to-date inquiry whether non-linearity is present in respect of job satisfaction itself. That is the first aim of the present paper. We will use ordered probit techniques, which have the advantage of taking into account the ordinality of job satisfaction values.

The second question in need of examination concerns the explanation of any positive age gradient that is found. Why do older employees report greater job satisfaction than younger ones? Six arguments have been presented to account for that tendency.

First, many older people move into jobs which have more desirable characteristics, as a result of which they might be expected to be more satisfied (e.g. Janson & Martin, 1982;

Kalleberg & Loscocco, 1983; Wright & Hamilton, 1978). These role transitions are sometimes examined in terms of different career stages. For example. Morrow & McElroy (1987) observed significantly more positive intrinsic job satisfaction in the 'maintenance' stage than in the earlier 'trial' stage of a career. Nevertheless, after statistically controlling for differences in key job attributes, a significant age difference in job-related well-being is typically retained (Glenn et al., 1977; Kalleberg & Loscocco, 1983; Warr, 1992).

Is job satisfaction U-shaped in age? 59 Movement into more attractive jobs thus cannot completely account for the positive age gradient.

Second, there is evidence that older employees have specific work values which make more attractive job characteristics that are less desirable to younger people. Wright & Hamilton (1978) and Kalleberg & Loscocco (1983) (in secondary analyses of the same data; see above) found that the rated importance of many job features is stable across ages, but that income and promotion opportunities were of less concern to older employees. If employees in general tend to be relatively dissatisfied with these characteristics, then their greater importance for younger workers will produce a positive relationship between job satisfaction and age.

Several investigators have examined whether differences in measured work values can account for the increase in job satisfaction with age. As with job characteristics, above, differences in values can account for some of the age pattern. However, the independent effect of age is retained in multivariate analyses even after the introduction of controls for work values (e.g. Clark, 1996; Kalleberg & Loscocco, 1983; Warr, 1992).

Third, it seems probable that older workers will come to lower their expectations in some respects. Younger people may have high expectations, which, being modified by the experience of jobs which do not meet their standards, are diminished in later years. Such reduced comparison standards are likely to generate more positive work attitudes, as the perceived gap between actual and ideal work becomes smaller. If older people come to seek less from any possible job, then comparative assessments of their own position relative to other possibilities will give rise to more positive feelings about their own job.

Clark & Oswald (1996) and Clark (1994) have provided evidence that this comparative process operates in relation to perceptions of income.

A fourth possible explanation of the positive age gradient is in terms of cohort differences. The members of older generations in a study may, for example, have always been more satisfied with their jobs. In order to examine this possibility directly, it is desirable to compare individuals or surveys over a period of years. Such research is not widely available, but in general the evidence for cohort differences in job satisfaction is not strong (Glenn & Weaver, 1985; Janson & Martin, 1982).

Fifth, some of the observed differences between age groups might be accounted for by varying rates of participation in the labour force. Whereas more than 90 per cent of British men aged between 25 and 55 are economically active at present, only just over two-thirds of those between 55 and 65 are in the labour market; for women, these values are about 70 per cent and 35 per cent (e.g. Department of Employment, 1993). Older employees are therefore somewhat less representative of their age group in comparison with younger ones; it is possible that, through greater self-selection into the sample, they have more positive work attitudes than those who are no longer employed.

Nevertheless, that effect, if it occurs, is unlikely to be large; some older people outside the labour force may in practice have been excluded against their will. Furthermore, the explanation is less relevant to early investigations into age and job satisfaction, since older people's participation rates declined substantially only in the 1970s and 1980s.

Differential sample composition was of less concern prior to that period, but a positive age gradient has been found at all times.

A sixth possible explanation of the greater job satisfaction of older employees is in terms of non-job variations. Age differences have been reported, for example, in respect of 60 Andrew Clark, Andrew Oswald and Peter Warr general life satisfaction (e.g. Campbell, Converse & Rodgers, 1976) and depression (e.g.

Clark & Oswald, 1994; Ryff, 1989), and an age-related U-shape in mental health is known to be present among unemployed men (Warr, Jackson & Banks, 1988). It is possible that job satisfaction scores in part reflect context-free variations in mental health, which are not restricted to feelings about a job.

Such differences are presumably associated with variations in family composition (for instance, in respect of dependant children) and in differences in financial position and demands, self-concept, personal and normative expectations, and social roles at different ages. The importance of non-job variables of this kind might be examined by statistically controlling for them in satisfaction regressions. In practice, it is difficult to measure the less public aspects of self-concept and personal aspirations at different ages, and attention has so far been focused on marital status and number of dependant children. Controls for those factors do not remove the significant influence of age (Kalleberg & Loscocco, 1983;

Warr, 1992); the age gradient in job satisfaction thus has not been explained through the limited life-stage variables that have been included in analyses to date.

In overview, it seems likely that each of these six sets of features can contribute to the positive association between age and overall job satisfaction. The fourth and fifth (a cohort difference and reduced labour market participation by older people) are not readily open to investigation in a cross-sectional study, but reasons one, two and six (role transitions, shifts in values, and non-job changes across the working years) have been examined through multivariate investigations. The variables incorporated to date have often themselves been statistically significant, but they have failed to render non-significant the effect of age; hence, some other variables, not yet identified, appear also to underlie the observed age pattern. Reason three is in terms of changes in aspiration level, suggesting that, as individuals learn more about the costs and rewards of paid work, so they come to expect less and therefore feel more positive about what they have. This issue is difficult to address empirically, since surveys typically obtain no information about individuals' expectations or, more saliently, what those were in the past.

The present investigation includes a large variety of potential explanatory factors, and it differs from previous research in two main ways. First, there is a particular need to examine whether personal characteristics, such as level of education, self-reported health and work values, can account for the overall age pattern in respect of job satisfaction. The set of potential moderators in the present study gives emphasis to those features. Second, we will focus particularly on the fifth issue introduced above: are non-job issues important in the association between age and satisfaction with one's job?

One way to examine this question is through a measure of more wide ranging affect.

If, for the same sample of employees, the age pattern for general mental health (without specific reference to job issues) is the same as that for job satisfaction, it is likely that nonjob factors (contributing strongly to the context-free measure) are also important for job satisfaction. Conversely, if the job-specific and context-free variables (job satisfaction and mental health respectively) are not associated with employees' age in the same manner, we may suggest that non-job features have little impact on job-related affect. That question will be examined here.

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