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On the Limits of Agency for Successful Aging at Work
Rachel S. Rauvola1
Cort W. Rudolph2
1DePaul University
2Saint Louis University
Author Note
Rachel S. Rauvola, Department of Psychology, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA.
Cort W. Rudolph, Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO, USA.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rachel S. Rauvola,
DePaul University, Byrne Hall, Chicago, IL, 60614, rrauvola@depaul.edu, +1(314) 537-9837
Please Cite As:
Rauvola, R. S., & Rudolph, C. W. (2020). On the limits of agency for successful aging at work.
Industrial and Organizational Psychology. [In Press Accepted Manuscript].
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On the Limits of Agency for Successful Aging at Work
“Both access to the means to success, however defined, and the very definition of success itself
are matters of social inequality” – Katz & Calasanti (2015) on “successful aging”
Successful aging, in and outside of work, is an area worthy of research attention. To this
end, Kooij and colleagues (2020) provide a process model of successful aging at work, detailing
proactive and adaptive self-regulatory behaviors that support individuals’ ability and motivation
to continue working (Kooij, Zacher, Wang, & Heckhausen, 2020). We agree with many of their
contentions, but some areas of the model require further consideration.
Such considerations all fall within one broader concern: that Kooij and colleagues’ model
(and all models of “successful aging”, to a degree) are overly agentic, overemphasizing the
degree to which people possess the intrinsic capacity for control. Structural constraints and
limitations directly impact appraisals, experiences, and self-regulatory processes, and individuals
cannot “regulate away” or “through” all of these indefinitely and universally. In its current form,
however, the model does not provide a direct pathway between the constraining forces of age-
related discrimination and bias on the one hand and fit perceptions and self-regulation processes
on the other hand. Such constraints and limitations are the primary focus of our commentary.
We recognize, of course, that including all possible constraints and opportunities in a
single model is both unrealistic and unwieldy (and that Kooij and colleagues’ model was focused
on enabling or triggering factors for self-regulation). However, we would be unduly optimistic,
and ruggedly individualistic, as a field to emphasize facilitating factors and not provide equal
discussion of hindrances and challenges to successful aging. Without an understanding of what
prevents or poses issues for aging successfully at work, we cannot get a full “picture” of aging,
and of how to define “success” inclusively, for the diverse workforce.
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Kooij and colleagues call for future research to “take into account that an intervention
carried out at one level might have implications at other levels” and consider “that age-related
bias and discrimination at different levels may hinder the enabling factors at the corresponding
level and constrain their beneficial effects” (p. 29), sentiments that we echo and believe prompt
elaboration in three core areas. Specifically, we contend that limiting and constraining factors
manifest across the macro, meso, and micro levels of Kooij and colleagues’ model, and that these
factors impact individuals' fit appraisals and self-regulatory processes. We discuss each of these
areas by their level of origin, next (i.e., with the understanding that all of these factors have
“cross-level” influences; e.g., systemic influences on individual fit perceptions).
It is worth noting at the outset that a disconnect between macro/meso factors and
successful aging has long been suggested in the lifespan development literature (e.g., Baltes’,
1997 conceptualization of the “incomplete architecture of human ontogeny” offers that there are
age-graded decreases in the efficiency of cultural factors and resources for supporting successful
aging). The missing components from Kooij and colleagues’ model represent this disconnect,
and thereby represent a longstanding concern in the aging literature that bears addressing.
Macro Level: Systems of Oppression and Inequity
Systems of oppression and inequity constrain how, when, and to what end individuals
self-regulate, as well as their perceptions of “fit”. To the former point, motivation, goal processes
(e.g., setting, striving, revision, (dis)engagement), and outcomes (e.g., rewards, performance
appraisals) occur within an environment that is bounded by a multitude of identity-relevant
societal structures, policies, and institutions (e.g., education, healthcare, criminal justice, social
service, employment law). We agree that some of these structures can enable certain self-
regulatory behaviors. Yet, at the same time that these systems enable and privilege some
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individuals and some processes, they also disenfranchise and marginalize others—whether
through historical influence (e.g., the lasting impact of segregated housing policies and redlining
in the U.S. throughout the 1900s) or contemporary discrimination (e.g., the recent rise in strict
U.S. voter identification laws and subsequent vote suppression). Such forces, however distal,
have bearing on work behaviors and career decisions.
Individuals do not just age at work; they age at work while embodying other identities
(e.g., class, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, familial status) and contending with
corresponding advantages (e.g., respect, status, social support, trust resulting from being a
member of a perceived majority group) and challenges (e.g., avoidance, exclusion, incivility,
stigmatization resulting from being a member of a perceived minority group). Research supports
the role that factors such as socioeconomic status play in shaping motivation and behavior (e.g.,
proactivity), as well as opportunities (e.g., for goal setting, self-regulatory activities), feedback,
and resources in organizations (e.g., for goal striving; see review in Pitesa & Pillutla, 2019).
Similar research can be found considering other identities such as gender (e.g., Gascoigne, Parry,
& Buchanan, 2015), which is not even to begin tackling the idea of how such social identities
overlap to produce interdependent and unique forms of discrimination and self-regulatory
disadvantage (i.e., an intersectional approach; see Acker, 2006), or how privileges and
disadvantages may accumulate over the life course. Even the supposition of self-reliance
characteristic of lifespan and “successful aging” theories may be promoting disadvantage for
certain groups, depending on cultural norms and values (e.g., those relevant to independence vs.
interdependence; Stephens, Dittmann, & Townsend, 2017). Although we do not often dwell in
the “macro realm”, recognizing the substantive impact of these forces on psychological
processes is imperative.
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Much can be said about how systems of oppression and inequity impact individuals’ fit
perceptions as well. “Fit” with one’s environment is multiply determined, which makes its
definition, and its relationships with motivation and self-regulation, complex. Schmader and
Sedikides (2018), for example, highlight cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal components
of person–environment fit that jointly influence situation choice and behaviors. Their model
considers fit broadly rather than in a workplace-specific form; however, their focus on how
individuals seek environments in which they feel “safe” and authentic (i.e., with respect to
identity and acceptance), and how this intersects with individuals’ self-concept, goals, and
relationships, is highly applicable to the work context. “Who” certain work environments are
constructed by and for (e.g., “cultural defaults” or majority groups vs. marginalized or minority
groups) can be signaled in a variety of ways (e.g., visible demographic composition,
organizational policies and practices), and this macro element can shape perceived fit.
Privilege and discrimination filter down into how individuals perceive themselves and
their jobs, workgroups, and organizations—all critical components of fit. They also provide
context for individuals to define “success” in aging, as well as “proactive” and “adaptive” self-
regulation—and the environments in which such forms of self-regulation are or are not possible.
Thus, the “manageability” of perceived misfit, and how individuals act upon it, are bounded by
systemic forces: oppression, discrimination, power, and privilege create unique personal
environments and legacies that both enable and limit agency across time and life domains.
Meso Level: Other Domains and Contradictions
It is similarly important to bear in mind the influence of other life domains (i.e., aside
from one’s work organization, team, role) on fit appraisals and self-regulatory behaviors at work,
as well as how these domains interact, sometimes opposingly, with work. The fact that
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individuals have non-work lives, social circles, and roles and responsibilities is not a revelatory
concept: the abundance of (and growth in) work–family and work–life research is a testament to
this. However, the recognition that other domains influence self-regulation and fit perceptions at
work is lagging behind in models of successful aging (cf. Hirschi, Shockley, & Zacher, 2019;
Thrasher, Zabel, Wynne, & Baltes, 2016). Employees live and work in multi-person systems
(e.g., families, communities), and their decisions at and about work (e.g., to remain in vs. leave a
job) rely on more than anticipated or experienced intradomain characteristics and (mis)fit. Not
only may individuals’ non-work lives constrain the energy and resources they have at their
disposal for certain forms of regulation (e.g., goal (dis)engagement, job crafting), but the needs
and demands of one’s non-work life may also dictate decision-making at work that, out of
context, appears contrary to self-preservation (e.g., remaining in a stressful, unsatisfying job to
maintain family health insurance coverage; e.g., Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, & Autin, 2016). Self-
focused decision-making is often a luxury reserved for a fortunate few.
Moreover, these effects are likely interactive or multiplicative, such that certain social
identities may result in heightened salience and potency for non-work influences on work
decision-making: for example, living in poverty may translate into greater family demands (e.g.,
due to the unaffordability of child- and eldercare), leading to more reliance on and strain for
“breadwinning” family members. The influence of control-based interventions (e.g., autonomy
promotion) or work characteristics at various levels (e.g., job, workgroup, organization), as well
as the nature of boundary-spanning resources, demands, and barriers, may differ substantially
when taking such variables into account. An intervention that provides more freedom for
employees may have the unintended consequence of blurring boundaries between work and
family, resulting, for instance, in heightened strain for certain workers (e.g., women under more
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financial strain, when contacted frequently by family members during work hours; Badawy &
Schieman, 2019). Here, again, agency, “fit”, and “success” are necessarily defined by context.
Micro Level: Goal Systems and Contingencies
Restrictions on agency filter down to the “micro” level as well. Competing goals and
intersectional identities combine to produce complex goal systems in which individuals appraise
fit and self-regulate. Self-regulation requires the inhibition of alternative goals (both within and
outside of a given domain) and the activation of certain prioritized goal(s). Moreover, goals are
organized in hierarchies, wherein certain “lower” goals fall within a broader umbrella of striving
toward a “higher” goal (e.g., reducing work hours may serve the larger goal of improved well-
being). Just as domains can, in a sense, compete with (or enable) one another, an individual’s
goals can interfere with as well as facilitate each other. Agency may seem necessarily abundant
here: how could context impinge upon all sorts of goal setting, prioritization, and decision-
making? Isn’t some level of such behavior always manageable, barring extreme circumstances?
The answer to this is “yes, but”, taking into consideration the very same motivational systems
that, theoretically, enable some level of adaptation and/or proactivity in any situation.
First, we must consider that self-regulatory ability may fundamentally differ depending
on an individual’s life context. Poverty and stress, for example, are powerful forces that shape
early development and regulatory resources into later life (Evans & Kim, 2013). Second, the
perception of control itself, which is a necessary precondition for fit discrepancy
“manageability” and the engagement of self-regulatory behaviors, may differ significantly for
individuals from vulnerable populations (Thompson & Spacapan, 1991). The same can be said
for how (and if) individuals manage and optimize their goal systems (e.g., as a function of age
and personality; Tomasik, Knecht, & Freund, 2017). Third and finally, if an individual must
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again and again disengage from unattainable goals (e.g., at the task or job level) to improve their
perceived fit at work, there are likely to be broader, negative implications for that individual’s
higher-order goals and/or self-concept (i.e., misfit between work experience and underlying
needs, such as being a successful or productive member of society). Workplaces can create jobs
and employment circumstances that facilitate goal engagement and self-concept-reinforcement
for older workers from diverse backgrounds. However, these interventions must be considered
alongside the influences of systemic oppression and inequity, and of other life domains,
discussed earlier. Individuals cannot “regulate away” or “through” all of these forces. In fact,
these forces shape the way that individuals appraise fit and engage in self-regulation, and our
models of successful aging at work must take such principles into account.
Conclusion
Models of successful aging assume that individuals are responsible for their own
development. They largely focus on how individuals use self-regulatory behaviors to overcome
limitations (e.g., as a function of age, life circumstances), rather than considering how limitations
exist and shape processes of situation appraisal and self-regulation themselves—let alone how
these forces (re)define “success” in aging. When we take such an individualistic and self-reliant
approach, we inadvertently create an exclusionary version of “successful aging”. Kooij and
colleagues (2020) provide a clear model in which we can address these past shortcomings for
future work. To do so is to truly embrace the principles of equifinality (i.e., many means/paths
leading to the same outcome) and multifinality (i.e., the same means/paths leading to different
outcomes) in our theories of aging, as we have purported to do for quite some time. We must
move away from an overreliance on agency and bring an understanding of constraints, context,
and intersectionality to the fore.
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