Personality and Work Satisfaction

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe personality and work related issues in midlife

Personality in Midlife

Research on adult personality examines normative age-related increases and decreases in the expression of the so-called “Big Five” traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These are assumed to be based largely on biological heredity. These five traits are sometimes summarized via the OCEAN acronym.  Individuals are assessed by the measurement of these traits along a continuum (e.g. high extroversion to low extroversion). They now dominate the field of empirical personality research. Does personality change throughout adulthood? Previously the answer was thought to be no. It was William James who stated in his foundational text, The Principles of Psychology (1890), that “[i]n most of us, by the age of thirty, the character is set like plaster, and will never soften again”. Not surprisingly, this became known as the plaster hypothesis.

Contemporary research shows that, although some people’s personalities are relatively stable over time, others’ are not (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). Longitudinal studies reveal average changes during adulthood, and individual differences in these patterns over the lifespan may be due to idiosyncratic life events (e.g., divorce, illness). Roberts, Wood & Caspi (2008) report evidence of increases in agreeableness and conscientiousness as persons age, mixed results in regard to openness, reduction in neuroticism but only in women, and no change with regard to extroversion. Whether this “maturation” is the cause or effect of some of the changes noted in the section devoted to psycho social development is still unresolved. Longitudinal research also suggests that adult personality traits, such as conscientiousness, predict important life outcomes including job success, health, and longevity (Friedman, Tucker, Tomlinson-Keasey, Schwartz, Wingard, & Criqui, 1993; Roberts, Kuncel, Shiner, Caspi, & Goldberg, 2007). How important these changes are remains somewhat unresolved. Thus, we have the hard plaster hypothesis, emphasizing fixity in personality over the age of thirty with some very minor variation, and the soft plaster version which views these changes as possible and important.[1]

Man and woman looking happily at a computer with a microphone close-by, presumably working on music development.

Figure 1. Personalities in midlife are not as set as researchers once thought, and may still mature as we get older.

Carl Jung believed that our personality actually matures as we get older. A healthy personality is one that is balanced. People suffer tension and anxiety when they fail to express all of their inherent qualities. Jung believed that each of us possess a “shadow side.” For example, those who are typically introverted also have an extroverted side that rarely finds expression unless we are relaxed and uninhibited. Each of us has both a masculine and feminine side, but in younger years, we feel societal pressure to give expression only to one. As we get older, we may become freer to express all of our traits as the situation arises. We find gender convergence in older adults. Men become more interested in intimacy and family ties. Women may become more assertive. This gender convergence is also affected by changes in society’s expectations for males and females. With each new generation we find that the roles of men and women are less stereotypical, and this allows for change as well.

Subjective Aging

One aspect of the self that particularly interests life span and life course psychologists is the individual’s perception and evaluation of their own aging and identification with an age group. Subjective age is a multidimensional construct that indicates how old (or young) a person feels, and into which age group a person categorizes themself. After early adulthood, most people say that they feel younger than their chronological age, and the gap between subjective age and actual age generally increases. On average, after age 40 people report feeling 20% younger than their actual age (e.g., Rubin & Berntsen, 2006). Asking people how satisfied they are with their own aging assesses an evaluative component of age identity. Whereas some aspects of age identity are positively valued (e.g., acquiring seniority in a profession or becoming a grandparent), others may be less valued, depending on societal context. Perceived physical age (i.e., the age one looks in a mirror) is one aspect that requires considerable self-related adaptation in social and cultural contexts that value young bodies. Feeling younger and being satisfied with one’s own aging are expressions of positive self-perceptions of aging. They reflect the operation of self-related processes that enhance well-being. Levy (2009) found that older individuals who are able to adapt to and accept changes in their appearance and physical capacity in a positive way report higher well-being, have better health, and live longer.

There is now an increasing acceptance of the view within developmental psychology that an uncritical reliance on chronological age may be inappropriate. People have certain expectations about getting older, their own idiosyncratic views, and internalized societal beliefs. Taken together they constitute a tacit knowledge of the aging process. A negative perception of how we are aging can have real results in terms of life expectancy and poor health. Levy et al (2002) estimated that those with positive feelings about aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who did not. Subjective aging encompasses a wide range of psychological perspectives and empirical research. However, there is now a growing body of work centered around a construct referred to as Awareness of Age Related Change (AARC) (Diehl et al, 2015), which examines the effects of our subjective perceptions of age and their consequential, and very real, effects. Neuport & Bellingtier (2017) report that this subjective awareness can change on a daily basis, and that negative events or comments can disproportionately affect those with the most positive outlook on aging.

Work Satisfaction

Middle adulthood is characterized by a time of transition, change, and renewal. Accordingly, attitudes about work and satisfaction from work tend to undergo a transformation or reorientation during this time. Age is positively related to job satisfaction—the older we get the more we derive satisfaction from work(Ng & Feldman, 2010).[2] However, that is far from the entire story and repeats, once more, the paradoxical nature of the research findings from this period of the life course. Dobrow, Gazach & Liu (2018) found that job satisfaction in those aged 43-51 was correlated with advancing age, but that there was increased dissatisfaction the longer one stayed in the same job. Again, as socio-emotional selectivity theory would predict, there is a marked reluctance to tolerate a work situation deemed unsuitable or unsatisfying. Years left, as opposed to years spent, necessitates a sense of purpose in all daily activities and interactions, including work.[3]

The workplace today is one in which many people from various walks of life come together. Work schedules are more flexible and varied, and more work independently from home or anywhere there is an internet connection. The midlife worker must be flexible, stay current with technology, and be capable of working within a global community.

Watch It

Seeking job enjoyment may account for the fact that many people over 50 sometimes seek changes in employment known as “encore careers.” Some midlife adults anticipate retirement, while others may be postponing it for financial reasons, or others may simple feel a desire to continue working.

You can view the transcript for “Boomers Find Second Act in “Encore” Careers (7/26/13)” here (opens in new window).

Relationships at Work

Female midlife co-workers celebrating in the office.

Figure 2. Healthy work relationships have a big impact on job satisfaction.

Working adults spend a large part of their waking hours in relationships with coworkers and supervisors. Because these relationships are forced upon us by work, researchers focus less on their presence or absence and instead focus on their quality. High quality work relationships can make jobs enjoyable and less stressful. This is because workers experience mutual trust and support in the workplace to overcome work challenges. Liking the people we work with can also translate to more humor and fun on the job. Research has shown that supervisors who are more supportive have employees who are more likely to thrive at work (Paterson, Luthans, & Jeung, 2014; Monnot & Beehr, 2014; Winkler, Busch, Clasen, & Vowinkel, 2015). On the other hand, poor quality work relationships can make a job feel like drudgery. Everyone knows that horrible bosses can make the workday unpleasant. Supervisors that are sources of stress have a negative impact on the subjective well-being of their employees (Monnot & Beehr, 2014). Specifically, research has shown that employees who rate their supervisors high on the so-called “dark triad”—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism—reported greater psychological distress at work, as well as less job satisfaction (Mathieu, Neumann, Hare, & Babiak, 2014).

In addition to the direct benefits or costs of work relationships on our well-being, we should also consider how these relationships can impact our job performance. Research has shown that feeling engaged in our work and having a high job performance predicts better health and greater life satisfaction (Shimazu, Schaufeli, Kamiyama, & Kawakami, 2015). Given that so many of our waking hours are spent on the job—about 90,000 hours across a lifetime—it makes sense that we should seek out and invest in positive relationships at work.

One of the most influential researchers in this field, Dorien Kooij (2013) identified four key motivations in older adults continuing to work. First, growth or development motivation- looking for new challenges in the work environment. The second are feelings of recognition and power. Third, feelings of power and security afforded by income and possible health benefits. Interestingly enough, the fourth area of motivation was Erikson’s generativity. The latter has been criticized for a lack of support in terms of empirical research findings, but two studies (Zacher et al, 2012; Ghislieri & Gatti, 2012) found that a primary motivation in continuing to work was the desire to pass on skills and experience, a process they describe as leader generativity. Perhaps a more straightforward term might be mentoring. In any case, the concept of generative leadership is now firmly established in the business and organizational management literature.

Organizations, public and private, are going to have to deal with an older workforce. The proportion of people in Europe over 60 will increase from 24% to 34% by 2050 (United Nations 2015), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 1 in 4 of the US workforce will be 55 or over. Workers may have good reason to avoid retirement, although it is often viewed as a time of relaxation and well-earned rest, statistics may indicate that a continued focus on the future may be preferable to stasis, or inactivity. In fact, Fitzpatrick & Moore (2018) report that death rates for American males jump 2% immediately after they turn 62, most likely a result of changes induced by retirement. Interestingly, this small spike in death rates is not seen in women, which may be the result of women having stronger social determinants of health (SDOH), which keep them active and interacting with others out of retirement. 

Try It


leader generativity:
mentoring and passing on off skills and experience that older adults can provide at work to feel motivated
plaster hypothesis:
the belief that personality is set like plaster by around the age of thirty

  1. Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L.A. Pervin (Eds.),Handbook of personality: Theory and research(Vol.3, pp. 375–398). New York: Guilford.
  2. (Ng & Feldman (2010) The relationship of age with job attitudes: a meta analysis Personnel Psychology 63 677-715
  3. Riza, S., Ganzach, Y & Liu Y (2018) Time and job satisfaction: a longitudinal study of the differential roles of age and tenure Journal of Management 44,7 2258-2579