About the author: Bernadeta Goštautaitė is a professor and a research fellow at the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius (Lithuania). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
While I am writing this blog, many parts of the world experience a second lockdown due to Covid-19, including Lithuania, where I live. These are unprecedented times we are all living in and endless debates surround us on how this “new normal” shapes and will continue to shape our lives, work, and careers, including disappearing offices and various ways of teleworking, personal relationships at work and work meaningfulness, disrupt career changes and transitions. An increasing number of commentaries point to the (mostly poor) situation of older individuals – let it be their increased risk due to the infection itself, enhanced vulnerability of unemployment, lower ability to survive self-isolation and work remotely. While the pandemic has normalized the remote work, it seems that particularly older employees are least likely to benefit from it.
Deeply ingrained stereotypes portray older employees as technophobic
Age-based stereotypes were commonplace already before the outbreak of pandemic. Widespread beliefs suggesting that older workers aren’t tech savvy (Finkelstein, King, & Voyles, 2015) may affect individual careers directly through discrimination and biased decision-making because older individuals are perceived as less job mobile, less trainable, and are less likely to be hired (Neumark, Burn, & Button, 2019). Maybe even more importantly, ageist stereotypes may shape late careers indirectly, as they discourage mature workers from initiating learning and seeking career advancement.
People of all ages tend to develop age-based stereotypes; yet, with age we increasingly internalize those ageist stereotypes, that is, begin self-stereotyping ourselves. Not surprisingly, internalizing negative age stereotypes leads to detrimental effects for older workers performance, career goals, motivation, and self-efficacy (Maurer, 2001). Finally, as mature workers discount their capabilities of learning to work with new technologies, they avoid situations that could elicit the negative age-based stereotypes, and, indeed, end up with lower digital skills and technological self-efficacy.
Older workers experiences with digital work during Covid-19
The outbreak of Covid-19 hit unexpectedly and threw us into remote mode without preparation, training, and sufficient resources. With the above knowledge and (of course!) my own stereotypes in mind, together with my colleagues at ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, I launched a study to explore how older employees handle the remote work using technologies. In this study, we focused on schoolteachers because many of them experienced a swing into remote work without having prior experience of distance teaching and needed to equip themselves with multiple digital skills in a very short time. Moreover, they did not have a chance to escape this hardcore “crash course”: in contrast to declining demands in other sectors (putting many workers in furloughs or even unemployment), during pandemic, education continued as intensely as pre-pandemic (as a mother of three little kids, I know what homeschooling means!). Last but not least – the median age of school teachers in Lithuania (as in many other European countries, Eurostat, 2017) is above 50 years old.
In the second week, after all Lithuanian schools moved their teaching online in late March 2020, we reached out to over 1800 schoolteachers across Lithuania and asked them to participate in a multi-wave survey on their remote work experiences and technology use during the outbreak of Covid-19. We asked questions about their self-efficacy while using technologies, age-related stereotypes, their workplace at home as well as family responsibilities together with training and support they received from their schools during this transition. In three waves of data collection, our participants also responded to questions about their work attitudes, adaptation and withdrawal intentions. We received completed questionnaires from more than 350 teachers aged from 23 to 67 years. In line with age-related stereotypes, in the first data collection wave, we saw considerable differences between younger and older employees in terms of their confidence to use technology. Older teachers also reported lower technological self-efficacy, less confidence in their abilities to perform their work activities using digital technology as well as less certainty about their skills to run a digital classroom. Unsurprisingly, these effects were more profound for older teachers, who were more likely to believe that technological skills usually decline with age; that is, those teachers who had more strongly internalized age-based stereotypes, struggled more to cope with distance learning challenges. Quite a few of these older teachers perceived the prompt need to adopt digital technology as a threat and were worried about revealing their weaknesses or risking their self-esteem.
Over time (during April and May), the more hours they spent with students in remote lessons, the more mastery and confidence they reported. Interestingly, older teachers experienced the greatest increase in technological self-efficacy compared to their younger counterparts. Remarkably, the stronger were their own age-based stereotypes at the beginning of the remote teaching, the largest were the gains in digital self-efficacy. In fact, towards the end of the school year (May – June), there were no differences between younger and older teachers in how they saw technologies and themselves, when using those technologies.
Instead of conclusions
The pandemic is considered as a career shock (Akkermans, Richardson, & Kraimer, 2020), which may threaten individual careers but may also create new avenues for personal development and improvement. It is probably a safe forecast that in the near future careers will depend on our digital literacy. Will the new unexpected skills have any long-term effects on the post-pandemic careers? Will the breach of self-stereotyping encourage people to embrace their professional development beyond digital literacy? Will employers start changing their attitudes and company policies that silently discriminate individuals in their later careers? Lastly, pandemic is not a kind of “intervention” that one would volunteer to repeat again, but can we find more constructive ways that could help us to promote learning and development of older individuals on the job? I am looking forward to future research shedding light on these important questions.
Akkermans, J., Richardson, J., & Kraimer, M. (2020). The Covid-19 Crisis as a Career Shock: Implications for Careers and Vocational Behavior. 119, 103434.
Eurostat. (2017). Teachers in the EU. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/EDN-20171004-1
Finkelstein, L. M., King, E. B., & Voyles, E. C. (2015). Age Metastereotyping and Cross-Age Workplace Interactions: A Meta View of Age Stereotypes at Work. Work, Aging and Retirement, 1(1), 26-40.
Maurer, T. J. (2001). Career-Relevant Learning and Development, Worker Age, and Beliefs About Self-Efficacy for Development. Journal of Management, 27(2), 123-140.
Neumark, D., Burn, I., & Button, P. (2019). Is It Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? New and Improved Evidence from a Field Experiment. Journal of Political Economy, 127(2), 922-970.
I am happy to acknowledge the valuable collaboration of my colleagues – Ilona Bučiūnienė and Irina Liubertė as well as the funding from European Social Fund (project No 09.3.3-LMT-K-712-01-0156) under grant agreement with the Research Council of Lithuania (LMTLT).