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Secrets to Thriving at Work During Late Career

Secrets to Thriving at Work During Late Career

By Maritha Peens

Indications are that older workers may want to extend their careers and delay retirement, which raises the question as to the kind of late careers they will experience.

One perspective is that older workers just maintain their careers or disengage during late career.

However another view is a late career in which older workers thrive – that they continue to learn, improve their skills and knowledge, and feel energized and alive as they do so.

So a year or two ago I set out to learn more about older Canadian workers’ experiences of thriving at work and how these experiences impact their intention to continue working.

I used the thriving at work definition developed by Gretchen Spreitzer and her colleagues at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, University of Michigan:

A psychological state in which individuals grow in a positive capacity, experiencing both a sense of vitality and a sense of learning. Vitality refers to the sense of feeling energized and alive, while learning refers to the sense of continually improving through acquiring and applying new knowledge and skills.

Twenty older workers (55+) who were working full time told me their stories of when they had felt they were thriving at work.

What was really interesting was that the participants thrived in specific types of situations. The older workers thrived when they;

  • added value, made a meaningful contribution, and had impact;
  • experienced or learned new things; or
  • achieved success

Value and Impact

Most of the older workers chose to tell their thriving story about an experience where they had done something meaningful, made a difference, and had impact.

This was often about helping others, for example mentoring younger or new employees, helping clients deal with a difficult situation, and making a difference in organizations. Sometimes, these actions were connected to something beyond the immediate work, like benefiting people in society.

One older worker, Janice, mentored a younger employee who had lost a big contract:

He was very dejected. He’s only about 30 years old and was wondering if he should change careers, and I had to call him into my office and sit him down, and talk to him a bit about… Tell him my failures and experiences, and things that I’ve learned from them, and how you put that behind you and move onto the next piece of business and try and pick yourself up, and dust yourself off, and do it again. . . .  When I finished talking to him that time, I had successfully persuaded him not to quit, not to get down on himself, not to just walk out the door and forget about this in terms of he’s not ever going to be able to succeed at it.

When Janice was in this situation, she felt excited, enthusiastic, genuine, and “very authentic in my life.” 

She said that it felt as if she was giving herself a pep talk. This sense of energy referred to the vitality component of thriving. At the same time, she felt she was growing in her ability to manage people and do her job well: “it’s good to manage staff, because it means I have to coach them and it makes me better in my own job. They say the best way to learn to do something is to teach others.

Growing in her ability to manage and becoming better at her job represented the learning component of thriving at work.

Novelty and Variety

Some stories were about new and varied experiences in work and with people, such as exploring, discovering, creating, or learning something new. This often occurred at the start of a new project, when taking a new direction, or meeting people with whom the older worker had not worked before. The work included exposure to a range of activities and topics.

Rex told a story of how he and three coworkers had explored an area in Africa at the start of a large construction project:

Going into an area where we said, “Hey, we’re going to build something here” and you can visualize what you’re going to build. That was a great experience for us, going with very close friends and doing this reconnaissance. There was, I don’t know, a sense of adventure in that. I guess that was it. Knowing that when it was all finished that it all started from that day.

Experiencing both a sense of vitality and a sense of learning was evident in Rex’s story. His references to and descriptions of the “adrenaline and newness” conveyed the sense of vitality. Everything was new to him and he had the “epiphany where you sort of pinch yourself and go, how did I get here?” The sense of learning came from figuring out how to operate in this part of the world, deal with the challenges, and deliver a good product to their client.

Achievement

Some older workers told stories about how they had achieved success or the result they had desired.

They rose to a challenge, made progress, or accomplished a good outcome for a client or other stakeholders. This brought about feelings of pride and accomplishment. While this type of situation is related to value and impact, it is different in the sense that the stories were about achieving concrete and successful results rather than about older workers’ value, impact, and purpose.

Adam’s story focused on how he had achieved a good outcome for his client and raised the profile of his organization through a successful new business undertaking.

He guided his client through a financial process and successful application for funds from a government program. He commented that his clients were “doubly happy because one, not only was their gift now being well looked after. Secondly, we doubled it kind of overnight.” In addition, Adam established his organization’s expertise in a niche area which built their profile and set them up for recurring business as his client started to refer other potential clients to him.

Adam described his sense of vitality as the enthusiasm and drive with which he had pursued the opportunity and motivated his organization to support the initiative. His sense of learning was described as the affirmation of him having “knowledge and expertise to bring to the table” and the confidence he gained from the accomplishment.

Work Context

During the process of thriving at work, the older workers behaved in ways to fuel and sustain thriving at work. The older workers drew on their experience, knowledge, maturity, and wisdom as resources in their thriving experience, and felt appreciated and validated when these resources and behaviours were recognized.

Positive emotions were a part of thriving at work, but also emerged as a result of the thriving experience.

While the older workers’ resources, behaviours, and attitudes impacted their thriving at work, it appeared as if the work context had an even bigger impact.

They thrived when they enjoyed their jobs and found it to be a good fit with their strengths and purpose. 

The older workers’ relationships with their managers and coworkers were characterized by mutual openness to feedback, trust, and respect. The manager provided the older workers with autonomy to do their jobs, opportunities for growth, and recognition for their contributions, and colleagues provided a sense of community and camaraderie.

Working in an organization where it was easy to get work done, whether as a result of clarity and openness around changes, access to technology and other resources, or limited bureaucracy and obstacles, enabled older workers’ thriving.

The likelihood of thriving was increased when they experienced their organizations’ concern for them. 

This included the acknowledgement of them as individuals (and not being treated as numbers) and balance between work responsibilities and their personal lives. Feeling part of something bigger, for example, when the organization made a contribution to the broader society, also contributed to the older workers’ thriving at work.

Overall, the themes which emerged from the older workers’ stories were closely related to Gretchen Spreitzer and her colleagues’ original thriving at work model (which was not attached to a specific generation) and subsequent studies I had encountered in my literature review.

This raised the question whether thriving at work was any different for older workers than what it was for all other workers.

What older workers need to thrive, may after all not be that different to what any other worker needs.

Maritha Peens is an executive coach in the public sector who has a passion for helping people thrive in career and life. Being a baby boomer herself, Maritha obtained her doctorate in Human and Organizational Systems through Fielding Graduate University when she was in her 50s. Having immigrated to Canada from South Africa in 2006, she now lives with her husband in Oakville, Ontario.

Notes

The full dissertation is available from ProQuest: Peens, M. (2017). No best before date: Thriving at work during late career (Doctoral dissertation). Fielding Graduate University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (No. 10257672).

The original thriving at work model is described in this article: Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549. 

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