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Age, proactivity and career
Marc van Veldhoven and Luc Dorenbosch
Department of Human Resource Studies, Tilburg University,
Tilburg, The Netherlands
Purpose – The purpose of this study is to shed more light on the role of employee proactivity
(self-starting, action-orientated behaviours aimed at greater organisational effectiveness) in relation to
aging and career development. It aims to do this in two ways. First, by investigating how age and HR
practices for development initiated by the organisation inﬂuence proactivity. Here, proactivity it seeks
to study as a career-relevant outcome. Second, by examining how age, proactivity and HR practices for
development inﬂuence employee experiences of career opportunities. Here, it aims to use proactivity as
Design/methodology/approach – A total of 619 employees from 47 departments completed a
questionnaire, including two scales on proactivity (on-the-job and developmental proactivity) as well
as a scale on career opportunities. HR and line managers in these departments were interviewed about
HR practices directed at career development of the employees. The data combine information from two
levels (employee, department) as well as three different sources (employee, line manager, HR manager),
and are analysed using multi-level analysis.
Findings – First, the paper presents the results on proactivity as an outcome: age is positively related
to proactivity on-the-job but has no association with proactivity towards development. HR practices
targeted at career development are positively associated with both types of proactivity. Second, the
results on proactivity as a predictor show that career opportunities have a negative association with
age, a positive association with proactivity, and a positive association with career
development-orientated HR practices. An additional negative effect on career opportunities is found
for the cross-level interaction between HR practices and age.
Originality/value – This study is original as it combines individual, psychological, and HR
perspectives in researching age-related career issues. It contributes to the literature by showing that
age has no negative, but rather a positive impact on proactivity. Proactivity furthermore is sensitive to
HR practices for development, implying that organisations can inﬂuence the proactivity of their
employees. For older employees the study implies that, although organisations tend to offer them
fewer HR practices for development, they can offset this disadvantage to some extent by increased
proactivity, and thus retain career opportunities.
Keywords Older workers, Career development, Human resource management, Self-assessment
Paper type Research paper
Age, proactivity and career development
In Europe and North America many countries are facing demographic developments
that imply that older workers will become an increasingly substantial part of the
workforce in the near future. This is a result of a combination of shrinkage of the
overall workforce and an increase in the relative number of workers in higher age
groups. This scenario raises many questions as to the work participation and
performance capacities of the future older sections of the workforce in these countries
(Ilmarinen, 2006; Vaupel and Loichinger, 2006).
A behavioural attribute that has been suggested as central to extended work
participation and dealing with increased ﬂexibility demands is proactivity (Frese and
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Career Development International
Vol. 13 No. 2, 2008
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
Fay, 2001; Unsworth and Parker, 2003; Parker et al., 2006). Employees who take a
proactive approach towards different facets of their work are expected to deliver
sustained productivity in fast and dynamic work contexts in two ways. First, proactive
employees actively engage in solving inefﬁciencies that arise in continuously changing
work processes (on-the-job proactivity). Second, proactive employees scan new work
environments for developmental needs and seek to learn and acquire new skills and
knowledge to ensure their future employability (developmental proactivity). Although
it is recognised that personal initiative-taking towards job and development are
important aspects for the modern workforce (Fay and Kamps, 2006), only limited
empirical data are available on the relationship between aging and these two types of
Warr and Fay (2001) previously investigated this relationship and found differential
results for personal initiative towards the job versus personal initiative towards
developmental activities. They found no relationship between age and job proactivity,
but a negative relationship with developmental proactivity. This suggests that older
workers’ limited initiative towards development might seriously limit their (future)
work participation, performance and ﬂexibility. This is problematic in light of the
demographic outlined above. For the research ﬁeld of career development it is crucial
to understand the link between age and proactivity. This might beneﬁt employers and
society at large in ﬁnding ways to promote work participation and continued career
development in older employees. It might also beneﬁt employees in that better
conditions are created for extended participation in attractive work over the career
span. Unfortunately, apart from Warr and Fay’s short report dating from 2001, no
other studies are available on this relevant issue. This is the ﬁrst purpose of the current
study: to ﬁnd out how age relates to proactivity and whether HR practices offered by
an organisation make any difference in this relationship. We will assess HR practices
by interviewing HR and line managers in order to avoid all measures deriving from the
same (employee) source, thereby reducing the risk of common method bias.
Considering proactivity as an outcome is not enough, however, because ultimately it is
also relevant how proactivity in turn contributes to career development. Therefore, we
shall extend the Warr and Fay study by researching how age, proactivity and HR
practices contribute to career opportunities as experienced by employees. This is the
second purpose of the current study. It is important to recognise at the outset that
proactivity will be studied here as an outcome (of age and HR) as well as a predictor (of
In the past, the search for behavioural attributes that deﬁne a workforce which has
“what it takes” for organisational effectiveness, has led to a stream of
I/O-psychological research on topics like job satisfaction and organisational
commitment. Research on job satisfaction and organisational commitment in
relation to job performance has been the mainstream of the ﬁeld for a long time and
these topics continue to be studied intensively (Judge et al., 2001; Meyer et al., 2002).
However, more recently the question has been raised whether a satisﬁed and
committed workforce still has “what it takes” in contemporary organisational settings.
Several new concepts have been introduced that focus primarily on behavioural
attributes of employees that actively seek to inﬂuence both the work environment and
their own development (Frese and Fay, 2001; Sonnentag and Frese, 2002). Interest in
these concepts has mainly been stimulated by the demands for ﬂexibility, innovation
and change that characterise modern economies and organisations (Boxall and Purcell,
2003; Unsworth and Parker, 2003; Paauwe, 2004). In this context, Frese and Fay (2001),
use the term “active performance concepts” in contrast to “passive performance
concepts”, like satisfaction and commitment. A common difference between active
concepts and passive concepts is the emphasis on the employee as an actor in contrast
to the employee as an object of organisational stimuli and workplace conditions. It is
proposed that in modern work situations job structures become more ambiguous, more
poorly deﬁned and malleable, which leaves little or no structure to which one can adapt
(Murphy and Jackson, 1999). Therefore, such uncertain situations primarily require an
active approach to work that helps to identify the present tasks and long-term needs of
the organisation (Parker, 2000; Frese and Fay, 2001).
Among the active performance concepts recently forwarded, personal initiative is
one of the better-researched constructs (Frese et al., 1996; Frese et al., 1997; Frese and
Fay, 2001; Warr and Fay, 2001). According to Frese and Fay (2001) personal initiative
refers to a behavioural orientation to go beyond assigned tasks, to develop ones’ own
goals, to self-start these goals, and to take a long term perspective on ones’ work and
career. Personal initiative may be focussed on the job in general. Here, it refers to going
beyond what is formally required, persevering to achieve goals, overcoming barriers
and inefﬁciencies that are in the way of improved performance. Personal initiative is
also relevant in the context of development, however, where it refers to the self-starting
of activities that concern learning and gaining experiences that promote one’s career
and/or chances for future employment. Here, personal initiative shows overlap with the
construct of employability (Van Dam, 2004; Van der Heijde and Van der Heijden, 2006).
Also, other researchers have investigated similar issues when focusing on “motivation
to learn” (Taris et al., 2003; De Lange et al., 2005).
Together, these two aspects of initiative construe proactive employee attitudes that
are considered to be malleable, other than signifying a proactive personality trait that
remains stable over time (Parker and Wall, 1998). Proactivity is – to start with – an
“action orientation”. Proactivity, however, not only requires an attitudinal component
but also the accompanying behaviours, which involve goal-directedness, persistence
and long-term focus (Unsworth and Parker, 2003). In this paper, we will therefore adopt
the broad deﬁnition proposed by Unsworth and Parker (2003, p. 177): “proactivity is a
set of self-starting, action-orientated behaviours aimed at modifying the situation or
oneself to achieve greater personal or organisational effectiveness”. This deﬁnition
makes clear that in this paper we do not approach proactivity from the angle of a
personality trait, as some authors have done (Crant, 1995).
Proactivity and age
In the area of research on aging and work a similar shift from passive (Kalleberg and
Loscocco, 1983; Hanlon, 1986; Warr, 1992) to active constructs is discernible (Warr and
Fay, 2001). Employers and society at large currently hold all kinds of prejudices
against older workers. Older workers are believed to lack an orientation towards
ﬂexibility, innovativeness and change. Similarly, older workers are thought to be less
energetic in and motivated about their job (Warr and Fay, 2001). These prejudices are
troublesome in their own right, as they may lead to age discrimination (Johnson and
Neumark, 1997; Finkelstein and Burke, 1998; Boerlijst and Van der Heijden, 2003).
However, given the fact that the workforce in many Western countries will employ
more and more workers in higher age groups over the coming decades, these prejudices
also hint at a possible problem: are we moving towards an economy that needs
ﬂexibility, innovation and change, but that is staffed by age groups not conducive to
this type of job context? This is why it is important to research the relationship
between age and proactivity.
It is relevant from a societal point of view because it might shed light on how to
engage older employees better in their work, how they can remain productive and
ﬂexible, and how to convince larger numbers of older workers to stay at work instead
of opting for early retirement. Also, for employers and managers the issue is relevant
because as workforce composition changes over the coming decades it will become
harder to rely on a strategy of recruiting young employees when needed.
Employers/managers will be forced to import labour from elsewhere if they do not
adopt different strategies. Can they be convinced that retaining and/or recruiting older
employees is a viable option? And ﬁnally, studying age in relation to proactivity is
relevant to (future) older workers themselves. They face the risk of getting
marginalized by the increasing speed of change in organisational life, while at the same
time they are not being offered enough opportunities for development. What can
proactivity imply for them?
Warr and Fay (2001) provided some ﬁrst research evidence on the relationship
between age and proactivity, operationalised in their study as personal initiative. They
found that personal initiative is quite indifferent between age groups, whereas
initiative towards learning and education (development) declines with age. This study
was performed on two waves from a longitudinal study in Germany. Maurer et al.
(2003), studying a random sample from the US workforce over a period of just over one
year, found a negative relationship between age and learning preparedness of
employees. We therefore start out our current study by hypothesising the following
relationships between age and proactivity:
H1a. There is no relationship between age and proactivity on-the-job.
H1b. There is a negative relationship between age and proactivity towards
Proactivity and HR practices targeted at employee development
Some studies have previously connected developmental activities and initiatives by
employees to the amount of support from supervisors or the organisation in general
(Kozlowski and Farr, 1988; Noe and Wilk, 1993; Maurer and Tarulli, 1994; Birdi et al.,
1997; Van Dam, 2004). A connected but more instrumental aspect of support is “the
availability of development and learning resources and policies that support and
encourage development” (Maurer et al., 2003, p. 708), or in other words: the amount of
HR practices targeted at development.
In HR literature, the term “HR practices” is used to denote the interventions that
organisations implement to shape employee behaviour in the workplace. Rather than
studying the relationships of proactivity with the sum of all HR practices, in this study
we will focus only on the relationships with HR practices that are directed at
development. This limitation is important for two reasons. First, the sum of all HR
practices is rather laborious to measure. A single area of HR practices is easier to
elaborate in more detail. Second, some authors have claimed that proactivity can be
inﬂuenced by speciﬁc training and development initiatives targeted at
proactivity/creativity improvement by the organisation (Kabanoff and Bottger, 1991;
Fay and Frese, 2001). If proactivity is open to such organisational inﬂuence (remember
it is an action orientation and a set of behaviours rather than a personality
characteristic), then it is important to investigate whether proactivity is inﬂuenced by
HR practices targeted at development that are already present in the organisation.
HR practices targeted at employee development are among the basic HR practices
mentioned in HR textbooks (Boxall and Purcell, 2003). Indeed, training and
development practices are among the basic elements of HRM in most organisations
(Boselie et al., 2005). HR practices for development may stimulate participation in
formal training and learning programmes (often off-the-job) as well as more
continuous, informal learning on the job (Marsick and Watkins, 1990). Other
development-oriented practices might be more centred on career assessment,
mentoring and career advice (Baruch, 2004). Collectively, all these HR practices are
also referred to as organisational career management (Sturgess et al., 2002).
Very little research is available on the link between developmental HR practices
offered by the organisation and proactivity. From what limited information there is,
one would expect a positive association (Noe, 1996; Sturgess et al., 2002). Also, we
expect the relationship between HR practices targeted at development and proactivity
to be in line with previous results on the link between organisational support and
developmental initiative (Frese and Fay, 2001; Unsworth and Parker, 2003). This leads
to our second hypothesis:
H2. There is a positive relationship between HR practices targeted at development
and proactivity (on-the-job as well as towards development).
For the sake of completeness, we will evaluate the possibility of an interaction effect of
HR practices for development and age on proactivity. This would imply that the
(negative) effect of age on proactivity is particularly strong when there are few HR
practices for development. It appears appropriate to use this opportunity to test a
cross-level situation-person interaction, because proactivity is an interactionist
construct that is considered to be inﬂuenced by individual, personal characteristics as
well as external situational characteristics (Unsworth and Parker, 2003; Parker et al.,
2006). However, there is no direct conceptual or theoretical rationale why these two
speciﬁc variables should be related, provided we are not measuring age-related HR
practices for development but HR practices for development relevant to all employees.
Therefore, we expect the effects of these two variables on proactivity to be additive
rather than multiplicative.
Proactivity, age and career opportunities
So far, we have discussed how age and HR practices targeted at development might
inﬂuence proactivity. Proactivity has been discussed as an outcome variable. However,
ultimately proactivity is important to career development in that it is a set of attitudes
and behaviours that may help shape an employee’s career. Therefore, we now turn to
the question whether proactivity contributes to career, more speciﬁcally whether it
contributes to career opportunities as reported by employees.
There are no previous empirical studies available on this connection. The
underlying assumption in research on proactivity, however, is that having this
attribute will aid employees in achieving high performance as well as enable them to
adapt better to changing work conditions and contexts (Unsworth and Parker, 2003).
Crant (2000) and Parker (2000) have argued strongly for such links. Employees
exhibiting proactivity are therefore expected to show behaviours that are valued by
modern organisations, seeking high performance and agile production systems (Dyer
and Shafer, 1999; Paauwe, 2004). One can expect this ﬁt between employee
characteristics and organisational goals to be reﬂected in positive career opportunities
for employees high on proactivity. Therefore we hypothesise that:
H3. There is a positive relationship between proactivity (on-the-job as well as
towards development) and career opportunities.
Above, we have argued that – in general – proactivity is beneﬁcial to employee career
opportunities, but how does age enter into this picture? Howard and Bray (1988) report
decreasing career opportunities with age in a longitudinal study of AT&T managers.
In line with this ﬁnding Van der Heijden (2006) reports that career initiatives and
training opportunities decrease with age in proﬁt as well as non-proﬁt sectors in The
Netherlands. Warr and Birdi (1998) found a similar phenomenon in the UK. In this
context, Lyon and Glover (1998) have highlighted a paradox between the call for
“lifelong learning” in HR literature on the one hand, and the fact that many older
workers meet with a lack of opportunities for learning and career development in
practice. We therefore expect that:
H4. There is a negative relationship between age and career opportunities.
And how do HR practices that are targeted at employee development relate to career
opportunities as experienced by employees? Training and development is one of the
important areas where employers can invest in their human resources (Winterton,
2007). Investing highly in these areas can be considered to be one of the best practices
in high-performance work systems (Boselie et al., 2005). Leading organisations tend to
invest more in HR practices towards development. For the individual employee who is
beneﬁting from these practices, one of the positive effects of this investment may be an
increase in career opportunities (either inside or outside the current organisation). In
fact, this is an accepted starting point in the literature (Hackman and Oldham, 1975;
Sullivan, 1999). Therefore, we formulate our next hypothesis as:
H5. There is a positive relationship between HR practices targeted at development
and career opportunities.
We have now connected proactivity, age and HR practices targeted at development on
the one hand with career opportunities on the other. Each of these three factors is
considered to be an independent causal factor for career opportunities. In the literature,
however, it is recognised that work behaviour and career advancement derive from an
interplay between individual and organisational factors (Sturgess et al., 2002; Baruch,
2004). Therefore we might also pose the question: how do these independent variables
interact in their impact on career opportunities? This is an important issue to research
because targets of increased work participation and performance of older workers may
depend on creating career perspectives that are recognised by this target group.
Several authors have proposed frameworks for the study of age in relation to
developmental practices and activities (Birdi et al., 1997; Maurer et al., 2003). How these
variables are related to career opportunities is not explicitly discussed in these papers,
however. One might argue from H4 and H5 that career opportunities are especially
good for younger employees enjoying an environment rich in HR practices geared
towards development. This possible interaction effect will be investigated below.
Additionally, some employees might experience a ﬁt between their personal
behaviours, in particular their high level of proactivity, and an organisational context
that is rich in providing HR practices for development, continuously challenging them
to use their skills and abilities (Edwards, 1991; Boxall and Purcell, 2003). It is possible
to argue on these grounds that employees high on proactivity are more likely to beneﬁt
from an environment rich in HR practices for development in terms of career
opportunities. This combines H3 and H5. Therefore, career opportunities might be
especially good for employees exhibiting high proactivity that work in units high on
HR practices towards development. This possible interaction will also be investigated.
This study provides information on the relationship between age and proactivity. First,
proactivity is researched as an outcome, and we will study how age and HR practices
for development combine in inﬂuencing proactivity. Second, proactivity is researched
as a predictor of career opportunities, alongside age and HR practices for development.
Most previous studies in this area have measured HR practices, proactivity as well as
career variables using employee surveys. Such studies are prone to criticism of
common method variance (Podsakoff et al., 2003). In this study we will measure HR
practices independently from the employees, so we can better disentangle
organisational and personal initiatives targeted at employee development and
performance. In measuring HR practices we will also take care not to include HR
practices that are speciﬁcally directed at developing older age groups. We will focus on
HR practices for development available to all workers in a speciﬁc work unit.
A cross-sectional survey study was carried out among 619 employees working in 47
departments of 11 Dutch organisations. At the same time separate interviews were
conducted with all HR and line managers of these departmental units. Thus, the data
derive from two levels (individual, unit) and three sources (employees, HR managers,
line managers). The research context was a larger PhD research project on proactivity,
HR and performance.
We wanted to avoid restriction of variance in proactivity in the sample due to
characteristics of the speciﬁc professions studied (generalist versus specialist; higher
skilled versus lower skilled). Also, we wanted to avoid variance restrictions in career
opportunities and developmental HR practices due to organisational size (small versus
large) and industry characteristics (human capital intensive versus human capital
extensive). This meant we had to target multiple organisations and professional
groups for our study. The data were collected between May and October 2006 through
contacting a wide range of organisations in The Netherlands, of which 11 agreed to
cooperate with interviews among line and HR managers and with the distribution of a
survey among their employees.
A total of 1,680 questionnaires were distributed to all employees within 47 work units
of the targeted 11 organisations, either on paper by way of their HR executives/line
managers or by way of intranet. A total of 670 employees replied to the questionnaire
by mail or web. This implies a response rate of 40 percent. From this sample we
selected only respondents with all required variables available for the current analyses,
reducing the sample to 619 employees. Respondents were non-managerial employees
from a variety of small and large organisations from a diversity of sectors, including
health care (188 employees), manufacturing (186 employees), service sector (109
employees), (semi-) government (69 employees), and education (67 employees). The
sample constitutes a mixture of higher skilled and lower skilled functional categories,
such as nurses, IT consultants, security agents, teachers, policy advisors, technicians
Average age is 41.0 years (standard deviation: 11.0 years). In the employee sample, 53.8
per cent is female and 46.2 per cent is male. The sample can be divided into two
subgroups based on the highest level of education. The ﬁrst category contains all
workers with lower vocational training or lower and all workers with middle
vocational training or equivalent (51.2 per cent of the sample). The second category
contains all workers with higher vocational training or higher (48.8 per cent). The
average number of contractual hours per week is 33.2 (standard deviation 9.9 hours per
week), and the average number of years in the organisation is 10.8 (standard deviation
No ready to use scales are available for measuring proactivity in the Dutch language.
Two aspects of proactivity (on-the-job and developmental) were therefore measured
with new scales, derived from existing item content for reasons of validity. No speciﬁc
timeframe was given for the period over which the respondents were asked to rate their
proactivity. An exploratory factor analysis using varimax rotation revealed a pattern
of items loading on two factors that clearly distinguishes between on-the-job
proactivity and developmental proactivity. Factor loadings of the items on the two
factors were between 0.69 and 0.85 for the factor that an item was expected to belong
to, and cross-loadings were always below 0.30. For career possibilities we used an
existing scale from a questionnaire that is widely applied in The Netherlands.
Job proactivity. For job proactivity, we included ﬁve items that were partly derived
from the personal initiative scale (Frese et al., 1997) and the taking charge scale
(Morrison and Phelps, 1999). First, three items reﬂect the extent to which employees
initiate new ways of working and solve problems when work processes contain
inefﬁciencies (“in my work, I make suggestions to improve the way we work”; “when
work methods or procedures are not effective, I try to do something about it” and
“when something is not right in the way work is done around here, I try to improve it”).
Second, one item taps into taking initiative to challenge the status quo (“I take initiative
even when others don’t”). Third, because implementing new initiatives often needs
supervisor support, we included one item to ask whether employees take action by
actively discussing improvements with their direct supervisor (“I discuss work
methods with my supervisor, when I think they could be improved”). Items were
answered on a ﬁve-point scale ranging from 1 ¼“strongly disagree” to 5 ¼“strongly
agree”. Cronbach’s alpha is 0.89.
Developmental proactivity. To measure developmental proactivity we included ﬁve
items that were partly derived from the learning motivation scale (Taris et al., 2003)
and the job aspiration scale (Warr, 1990). Following the reasoning of Karasek and
Theorell (1990) and Taris et al. (2003), the items reﬂect the degree of taking action to
change one’s behavioural patterns. We included three items that tapped the degree to
which employees set challenging goals and actively look for situations in which they
can expand their skills and knowledge (“In my work I set myself challenging goals”,
“In my work, I search for people from whom I can learn something” and “In my work, I
keep trying to learn new things”). Furthermore, we included two items that tapped the
degree to which employees are concerned with and self-assess future skills and
knowledge needs, as well as take action to adapt to these estimated future needs (“I
think about how I can keep doing a good job in the future” and “with regard to my
skills and knowledge, I see to it that I can cope with changes in my work”). Items were
answered on a ﬁve-point scale ranging from 1 ¼“strongly disagree” to 5 ¼“strongly
agree”. Cronbach’s alpha is 0.81.
Career opportunities. This is a three-item scale taken from the questionnaire on the
experience and evaluation of work (QEEW) (Van Veldhoven and Meijman, 1994).
Respondents rate whether they experience career opportunities on a four-point
frequency scale (always, often, sometimes, never). A sample item is “does your job offer
you the opportunity to progress ﬁnancially?”. Cronbach’s alpha is 0.85.
In order to measure HR practices targeted at career development we conducted
structured interviews in all 47 work units. For each of the work units we obtained data
directly from the ﬁrst-line managers responsible for the execution of HRM activities in
the work units. Furthermore, for each of the work units, we obtained matched data
from internal HR managers who were functionally linked to these line-managers. When
one HR manager was functionally linked to multiple line-managers/work units they
were asked to report separately on each of the work units. By including two raters for
the same work unit we can partly control for the large amount of measurement error
associated with single-rater studies in HRM (Gerhart et al., 2000). These authors advise
including three or more raters when gathering HR data at the organisational-level, but
since we primed the research at the work unit level of analysis, the inclusion of two
raters is often the maximal approach possible. We used structured face-to-face
interviews with closed questions mostly, in which respondents were asked to answer
using a predeﬁned response format (see Neal et al. (2005) for a similar approach).
HR practices for development. The interview questions on career development
reﬂected ﬁve aspects:
(1) The extent to which work units make use of career development practices (e.g.
personal development plans, career assessment interviews, internal mobility
(2) The opportunity for vertical/upward growth within the organisation.
(3) The opportunity for horizontal/functional growth within the job.
(4) The employee’s opportunity to structure his/her own career path.
(5) Line/HR managers” evaluations of the extent to which employees are
adequately “in motion”.
The full scale and the exact wording of the items is available from the authors on
request. No reference was made towards HR practices speciﬁcally targeted at older age
groups, as this would cause artiﬁcial ﬁndings. The HR practices for development that
we study are not speciﬁcally linked to any age group. These practices are targeted at
all employees in the unit.
Each of the items was rated separately by line and HR managers, except for the
number of speciﬁc development techniques in place, which was only rated by the HR
manager. Subsequently, the items were coded on a ﬁve-point answering scale,
reﬂecting low (¼1) to high (¼5) extensiveness of career development practices within
the work units. In order to examine the reliability of the items in the interview, we took
all the ratings by line and HR managers together, which resulted in nine available
scores per work unit. These nine scores can be considered a nine-item scale of the
unit-level construct “HR for development”, and this scale has an internal consistency
(Cronbach’s alpha) of 0.62 based on 47 units. This value is below the recommended
minimum value of 0.70 (Nunally, 1978), but alpha values higher than 0.60 are usually
considered adequate to use in further analyses. The 0.62 value is certainly a lot better
than the internal consistency estimates presented by Gerhart et al. (2000) for
single-rater, single-item measures as normally used in this type of HR research.
Bivariate correlations were calculated between all variables under investigation.
Correlations were calculated at both the individual level (HR for development
disaggregated) and the unit level (survey measures aggregated to unit mean scores).
The three dependent variables in the hypotheses to be tested in this study are all at
the individual level (job proactivity, developmental proactivity, and career
possibilities). These three variables show a signiﬁcant amount of variance at the
unit level (ICC1 of 0.04, 0.09 and 0.11, respectively (Bliese, 2000)). This suggests it is
important to try to explain variance at the individual level in these dependent
variables, but also to try to explain variance that is shared by unit members. This,
taken together with the fact that one of the predictor variables is measured at the unit
level (HR practices for development), makes multi level analysis the statistical tool of
choice (Bryk and Raudenbusch, 1992; Klein and Kozlowski, 2000).
Multi level analyses were performed (using MLWIN version 2.02) that enter the
independent variables into the equation in one block, including the cross-level
interactions. Four equations were computed: Two equations with proactivity as the
dependent variable (one for each type of proactivity, i.e. on-the-job and developmental),
where HR practices, age and their cross-level interaction term are the independent
variables. This relates to H1 and H2. This was followed by two equations with career
opportunities as the dependent variable (again one for each type of proactivity), where
HR practices, age, proactivity, and the cross-level interactions “ “HR £age” and
“HR £proactivity” are the independent variables. This relates to H3,H4 and H5.
For the unit level independent variable (HR practices for development) only ﬁxed
effects are entered into the equation. For the individual level independent variables
(age, proactivity) and the interaction terms (“age £HR” and “proactivity £HR”)
ﬁxed effects as well as random slopes are entered into the equation. The inclusion of
random slopes is based on the expectation that the impact of age, proactivity (and their
associated interaction terms with HR practices) on career opportunities might be
systematically different for each unit. In other words: the correlation coefﬁcient
between these independents and career opportunities might be different for each unit.
The multi level analysis results in estimates and standard errors for each of the
independent variables. These can be evaluated for signiﬁcance using the t-statistic
(Snijders and Bosker, 1999).
Means, standard deviations and bivariate correlations for all study variables are
presented in Tables I and II. Table I contains the results at the individual level, Table II
the results at the unit level. The highest correlation at the individual level is that
between the two types of proactivity, which amounts to 0.47. Warr and Fay (2001)
found correlations of 0.48 and 0.43 between personal initiative towards job and
towards development (in two waves of a longitudinal study), which is comparable.
Although this level of correlation is not problematic in the sense of multi-collinearity,
we shall nevertheless conduct separate analyses on the two types of proactivity. None
of the other individual correlations is above 0.30. What is remarkable is that the
amount of HR practices targeted at development relates positively to age (0.21). Units
with more HR practices for development in place appear to employ more employees in
higher age groups. A 0.50 correlation at the unit level further illustrates this point.
Our ﬁrst two hypotheses concern how age and HR practices targeted at
development relate to proactivity. The corresponding results can be found in Table III.
Variable Mean Std 1 2 3 4 5
1. HR practices for development 2.91 0.61 – 0.50 ** 0.54 ** 0.41 ** 0.29 *
2. Age 41.28 6.05 – 0.49 ** 0.04 20.17
3. Job proactivity 3.98 0.21 – 0.53 *0.23
4. Developmental proactivity 3.87 0.21 – 0.35 *
5. Career opportunities 2.55 0.43 –
Notes: n¼47; *p,0.05; **
p,0.01; Std ¼standard deviation
deviations and bivariate
correlations for all study
variables in the total
sample at the unit level
Variable Mean Std 1 2 3 4 5
1. HR practices for development 2.84 0.56 – 0.21 *0.17 *0.18 *0.15 *
2. Age 41.04 10.99 – 0.16 *20.01 20.19 *
3. Job proactivity 3.95 0.59 – 0.47 *0.11 *
4. Developmental proactivity 3.85 0.51 – 0.26 *
5. Career opportunities 2.56 0.90 –
Notes: n¼619; *p,0.01; Std ¼standard deviation
deviations and bivariate
correlations for all study
variables in the total
sample at the individual
Our current results show a more positive picture of the age-proactivity relationship
than those by Warr and Fay (2001): for job proactivity work we found a positive
association with age (instead of none as expected). For developmental proactivity we
found a slightly negative relationship with age, but this is not signiﬁcant (whereas in
Warr and Fay’s study it is).
H2 is conﬁrmed: for both types of proactivity a positive relationship is found with
the number of “development-oriented” HR practices in place. Also, as expected, there is
no signiﬁcant cross-level interaction between age and HR practices on proactivity.
In our next three hypotheses we relate proactivity, age and HR practices to career
opportunities. H3 is conﬁrmed for both types of proactivity. Higher proactivity
correlates with more career opportunities. The association is considerably more
convincing for developmental proactivity, however, than for job proactivity. Also, as
expected according to H4, career opportunities are strongly negatively related to age.
H5 is also conﬁrmed. When more HR practices targeted at development are reported
by HR and line management, better career opportunities are perceived by the
employees (Table IV).
Independent variable Estimate Standard error Tdf Sign.
a. Dependent variable: job proactivity
1. HR practices for development 0.145 0.044 3.295 45 *
2. Age 0.123 0.041 3.000 616 *
3. Cross-level interaction 1 £220.063 0.039 21.615 616 ns
b. Dependent variable: developmental proactivity
1. HR practices for development 0.167 0.054 3.093 45 *
2. Age 20.026 0.042 20.619 616 ns
3. Cross-level interaction 1 £2£0.047 0.040 1.175 616 ns
Notes: *p,0.01; ns ¼non-signiﬁcant; T¼T-value; df ¼degrees of freedom; Sign. ¼signiﬁcance
Multi-level analyses of
Independent variable Estimate Standard error Tdf Sign.
a. Dependent variable: career opportunities; model including job proactivity
1. HR practices for development 0.176 0.055 3.200 45 ***
2. Age 20.270 0.049 25.510 614 ***
3. Job proactivity 0.088 0.038 2.316 614 **
4. Cross-level interaction 1 £2£0.076 0.046 £1.652 614
5. Cross-level interaction 1 £320.089 0.037 22.405 614 **
b. Dependent variable: career opportunities; model including developmental proactivity
1. HR practices for development 0.149 0.056 2.661 45 **
2. Age 20.249 0.047 25.298 614 ***
3. Developmental proactivity 0.232 0.038 6.105 614 ***
4. Cross-level interaction 1 £220.080 0.044 21.818 614 *
5. Cross-level interaction 1 £3£0.041 0.039 21.051 614 ns
Notes: *p,0.10; **
p,0.01; ns ¼non-signiﬁcant; T¼T-value; df ¼degrees of
freedom; Sign. ¼signiﬁcance
Multi-level analyses of
We also investigated the cross-level interactions between HR practices on the one hand
and age/proactivity on the other hand. The results are somewhat mixed. For the
interaction between age and HR practices the results are as expected but not very
strong: a negative additional effect over and above the main effects is found for this
interaction effect, indicating that younger employees working in a unit with many HR
practices for development in place report more career opportunities. The results for the
HR x proactivity interaction are not as expected. They also differ between the two
types of proactivity. For the interaction between HR practices and developmental
proactivity we ﬁnd no signiﬁcant effect. This interaction term has a negative sign. The
interaction between HR and job proactivity is also negative in its impact on career
opportunities, but this time it is signiﬁcant. This means that employees working in
units with many HR practices targeted at development and describing their job
proactivity as low, report more career opportunities. This runs counter to the direction
that we expected for this cross-level interaction term.
All in all, the results are mostly in line with the hypotheses that guided our study. This
study picked up on the theme of the age-proactivity relationship as studied by Warr
and Fay (2001) and tried to extend the study of this relationship to how it connects with
HR practices for development (proactivity as an outcome) and with career
opportunities (proactivity as a predictor).
Age does appear to be positively correlated with job proactivity, and slightly
negatively (but not signiﬁcantly) correlated with developmental proactivity (H1a and
H1b). This means that, contrary to popular opinion among managers (Boerlijst and
Van der Heijden, 2003), older employees are rather on the positive side of proactivity on
the job, and are hardly different from younger employees in their developmental
proactivity. The current results are different from what was expected on the basis of
earlier studies by Warr and Fay (2001) and Maurer et al. (2003). We ﬁnd a more positive
picture than both these studies. Our Dutch sample from 2006 may not be comparable in
terms of culture, job market context and/or period with the German and American
samples used in these previous studies. The positive result from our current study ﬁts
well with the call for a more positive psychological view on the value of older workers
(Peterson and Spiker, 2005). Proactivity at work may be one of the characteristics of
psychological and emotional capital that are discerned by these authors as positive
attributes of older workers, and that might contribute important value to
HR practices targeted at development, as assessed independently from employees
by interviewing line and HR managers, correlate with both types of proacitivity (H2).
This underlines that proactivity is not a personality characteristic, but a set of job
orientations/behaviours that is inﬂuenced by situational antecedents (Frese and Fay,
2001; Unsworth and Parker, 2003; Parker et al., 2006). No evidence was found of an
interaction effect between age and HR practices for development on proactivity,
suggesting the effects of HR and age are additive, as was expected.
Career opportunities as experienced by employees have multiple determinants. We
found signiﬁcant main contributions from HR practices for development, age and both
types of proactivity, especially developmental proactivity (H3,H4 and H5). All main
effects are in the hypothesised directions. The results for proactivity correspond with
expectations based on arguments in the literature that this attitude will promote
performance and employability in employees (Crant, 2000; Parker, 2000). HR practices
also contribute to career opportunities, much in line with previous research (Sullivan,
1999). The results on proactivity and HR practices for development ﬁt very well with
the basic tenet of modern strategic HRM, where leading organisations are thought to
invest more in the development of their employees, provide better rewards for initiative
on behalf of the employees, and are able to provide better career paths, all because they
want to achieve (sustained) competitive advantage (Boxall and Purcell, 2003; Paauwe,
2004). Indeed, mutual investment in individual advantage and organisational
advantage is believed to be a founding principle for the exchange relationships in
such leading organisations (Tsui et al., 1997).
Age was negatively associated with career opportunities, which is consistent with
previous research by Howard and Bray (1988), Warr and Birdi (1998) and Van der
Heijden (2006). Notwithstanding the political rhetoric on the importance of engaging
the older sections of the workforce, organisational reality is still far from such a
situation (Peterson and Spiker, 2005).
Evidence of an interaction effect between HR and proactivity on career
opportunities is neither strong nor consistent. Mainly, these two predictors appear
to have an additive effect on career opportunities. The other cross-level interaction in
the analysis of career opportunities was found consistently, although it was rather
weak. We have conﬁrmed that high age and a low level of development-orientated HR
practices are associated with fewer career opportunities. An additional negative effect
is found for the interaction term of high age and low HR practices for development.
This means, that especially young people report higher career opportunities in an
environment that is rich in HR for development. Formulated reversely, for older
employees in contexts low on HR practices for development, career opportunities are
particularly bad. These results are consistent with the possibility of a negative spiral
for older employees in their career development: no opportunities for development
given by the organisation means no opportunities for career advancement, and the
consequent career stagnation makes employees even less eligible for future learning
and development investments by the organisation, thus creating a downward process
(Lyon and Glover, 1998).
Some limitations of the current study have to be mentioned. The study is
cross-sectional and therefore sheds no light on how aging or HR might shape
proactivity over time. Also, the causal role of these three factors in predicting career
opportunities is not clariﬁed by this study. Longitudinal research on aging in relation
to motivational, learning and career variables is still relatively scarce (Maurer et al.,
2003). The current study shares this drawback with many other studies in the area.
We have tried to add some methodological progress in this study by using
multi-source data. While there is no such problem in our analyses predicting
proactivity, it is important to notice that for our analyses on career opportunities the
possibility of common method bias still exists, as both proactivity and career
opportunities data were derived from the same employee survey.
Another criticism might be that what is presented as the variable “age” in this study
is actually a quite fuzzy variable containing time, generation, tenure and selection
effects (De Lange et al., 2006). We agree with this criticism and believe that for a topic
like proactivity it is important to differentiate in future research between the effects of
time/tenure and generation/selection: this study’s ﬁndings might well reﬂect the
cultural values of those who are now old and still at work, rather than the cumulative
effect of the amount of time passed on these employees (Smola and Sutton, 2002).
At the outset we expected age and HR practices for development to be unrelated, but
we found a 0.21 correlation between these two variables at the individual level (HR
practices disaggregated) and a correlation of 0.50 at the unit level (age averaged to the
unit level). This implies that units that invest more in HR practices for development
also employ more workers in older age groups. This can be interpreted as another
limitation of this study, as the independent variables do not appear to be fully
independent. Combining this ﬁnding with our other ﬁnding that older workers
experience fewer career opportunities, however, leads to the interesting conclusion that
on the one hand units that invest a lot in HR for development are able to maintain an
older workforce, but that on the other hand especially in these units older workers
appear to experience frustration as to their career opportunities.
A ﬁnal limitation that needs to be mentioned is that differential access of individual
employees to HR practices for development within one and the same unit was not
assessed. Our HR measure is located at the unit level, leaving individual differences in
HR delivery within units out of the picture.
Our results contribute to theory on proactivity in the workplace. Several models on
proactivity are outlining the antecedents of this type of work behaviour (Unsworth and
Parker, 2003; Parker et al., 2006). HR practices for development initiated by the
organisation should have a prominent place in these models. Also, employee age
should be a factor that is considered important, next to other individual factors like
On the practical side, our results as to the age-proactivity correlation imply that
reality around job proactivity might be more positive for older workers than expected
from popular prejudice among managers and from previous studies on this issue. If
anything, this means that effort might be necessary to convince managers and other
key decision makers of their prejudices and the associated unintended consequences.
For reliable work initiative: choose the older employee (Peterson and Spiker, 2005)!
Such awareness is necessary to balance common perceived downsides of older workers
like relatively high wages (Remery et al., 2001) and the stereotype image that they are
more critical and less malleable than younger employees (Sennett, 1998).
HR practices for development appear to matter for proactivity. This implies for
organisations that are striving for a high performing and ﬂexible work force that it is
not only a matter of recruiting the appropriate employees, but that current personnel
can also be inﬂuenced towards more proactivity by appropriate HR developmental
activities. This study supports efforts by organisations targeted at promoting
proactive attitudes and behaviours among their personnel as part of a strategy towards
an agile workforce (Dyer and Shafer, 1999; Fay and Frese, 2001; Paauwe, 2004).
As to career opportunities, it appears that although older workers do beneﬁt from
HR that is targeted at development, for younger employees the possible gains are much
higher. However, this phenomenon might be compensated to some extent by the
amount of proactivity (especially towards development) on behalf of the older workers.
One way to interpret these ﬁndings is that organisations are currently not using the
level of experience and proactivity of older workers to the extent they could.
Alternatively, we might interpret the ﬁndings in such a way that older employees are
realistic in their judgement of a lack of career opportunities, and are in the process of
taking personal initiative (especially towards development) to offset this disadvantage.
In sum, career management practices appear to be mostly targeted at younger
employees, whereas career self-management appears to be especially practised by
older employees. Although we do not agree that this is “the situation as it should be”,
the practical advice to older employees for the short term is to stress the importance of
their developmental proactivity, if they want to progress their career. This type of
proactive work behaviour appears to offset their negative starting point (fewer
opportunities for development offered by the organisation, going against possible
managerial and public prejudice) to a certain extent.
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About the authors
Marc van Veldhoven is currently working as an Associate Professor in the Department of
Human Resource Studies at Tilburg University. He worked in practice (as an occupational health
psychologist) for 15 years before returning to the university. Since 2002 he has been dedicated to
academic research and teaching HRM, well-being and performance. He has since published in
journals like Occupational and Environmental Medicine,Work and Stress,Human Resource
Management Journal,Personnel Review and Psychological Methods, among others. Marc van
Veldhoven is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
Luc Dorenbosch is currently employed as a PhD student in the Department of Human
Resource Studies at Tilburg University. His PhD project is about “HRM and vitality at work”. He
has published previously in Creativity and Information Management,Management Revue and
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