SIOP 2021 Ignite Talk

Emotional Diversity: An Unanticipated Benefit of the Aging Workforce

Hi! My name is Cort Rudolph, and I am an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Saint Louis University. Today I am going to talk about emotional diversity as an underappreciated benefit of the aging workforce. It is well-established that aging is a process that is characterized by gains, including increases in emotion regulation capacity, and losses such as declines in fluid cognitive abilities. To the former point, research supports the idea that aging positively affects emotional competencies, which benefit older individuals in the types of social-interactional processes that typify work relationships. For example, in customer service interactions, older workers may be “better” at managing difficult customers. As the workforce becomes increasingly older and age heterogeneous, the emergence of a new form of diversity, which I have termed “emotional diversity,” bears deeper consideration.

We have already established that the workforce is growing older and more age diverse, and that this “aging of the workforce” is a global phenomenon. Older and younger workers bring different knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics to the table. The mixing of such characteristics in an age diverse workforce brings challenges, but also opportunities to harness the unique and age-graded features of such collectives. Research has well-established an average age-graded increase in capacities to regulate one’s emotions. In general, research finds that older people are on average better at regulating their emotions than younger people, but there are some theoretically and empirically supported “boundary conditions” for this general finding. Indeed, theoretically speaking, much of the existing research on age and emotion regulation is grounded in lifespan development theoretical perspectives, for example, socioemotional selectivity theory, the selection, optimization, and compensation – emotion regulation model, or the strength and vulnerability integration model. For example, Susan Charles’ strength and vulnerability integration model, or “SAVI Model,” posits that development across the adult lifespan is accompanied by age-related improvements in emotion regulation, but also age-related declines in physiological flexibility. The SAVI model also suggests that, due to these age-related changes, emotional well-being is higher among older vs. younger adults when they experience low levels of chronic stressors.

In a series of recently-conducted studies, my collaborators and I have been looking at age and emotion regulation in the form of emotional labor using various lifespan and related theoretical frames as a guide. Emotional labor refers to the regulation of felt and expressed emotions required by one’s job, and can be classified as either more adaptive, antecedent-focused deep acting, or less- adaptive, response-focused surface acting.

For example, in one study that Eileen Toomey and I recently published, we conducted an experience sampling study among university employees who completed 15 surveys across one work week. Each survey collected momentary experiences of affective arousal, empathy, and emotional labor. We found that at the within-person level of analysis, empathy mediated the relationship between the experience of affective arousal and displays of emotional labor. Moreover, this process was age-conditional, such that the strength of this mediated effect was more pronounced for younger than older employees.

In another experience sampling study that Eileen Toomey, Hannes Zacher, and I conducted, we examined how chronological age and political skill jointly moderate relations between within-person levels of empathy and the use of emotional labor strategies. Results show that age and within-person levels of empathy were positively related to momentary levels of deep acting, and that the positive relationship between empathy and deep acting is conditional upon age and political skill.

In final recent daily diary study, Alyssa McGonagle and I explored age-conditional within-person effects of emotional labor on perceived work ability. We found that among relatively older individuals, greater use of deep acting was associated with more positive changes in perceived work ability.

Research on age diversity more broadly defined has important implications for individual-and unit-level processes and outcomes, and informs the idea that the emotional diversity that an age-diverse workforce brings to the table can be understood at different levels of analysis. Together with the findings of the studies that I have just discussed, this notion hints at an interesting possibility: relatively older workers are “better” at doing the type of work that requires high-levels of emotion regulation, especially emotional labor, and beyond the individual level of analysis, we can also ask what this observation means at an aggregate level. One possibility is that there could be an emergent unit-level phenomenon. At the unit or collective level, among teams with higher age diversity, we might expect “better” customer service ratings, lower levels of interpersonal conflict, better knowledge exchange/sharing, and more positive intergenerational exchanges. More broadly, what I am hinting at here, is that emotional diversity may be an important throughput or mediating/intermediary mechanism linking age diversity to unit level outcomes.

In closing out this brief talk, I hope that the ideas I have presented here inspire future research to consider how age diversity affects emotion regulation capacities within organizations and their subunits, and for individuals. Although more research is needed to really “flesh out” the ideas I have offered, I would argue that recognizing and capitalizing on emotional diversity is an important area for future research on aging and work. Such “emotional diversity,” could represent an under-realized competitive advantage, with distinct benefits to organizations and their constituents. Moreover, these ideas have important implications for the extension of person-environment fit perspectives, and likewise may be useful for the development of age informed job design.


Toomey, E. C., & Rudolph, C. W. (2018). Age-conditional effects in the affective arousal, empathy, and emotional labor linkage: Within-person evidence from an experience sampling study. Work, Aging and Retirement, 4(2), 145-160.

Toomey, E. C., Rudolph, C. W., & Zacher, H. (2021). Age-conditional effects of political skill and empathy on emotional labor: An experience sampling study. Work, Aging and Retirement, 7(1), 46-60.

Rudolph, C. W., & McGonagle, A. K. (2019). Exploring age-conditional effects in the emotional labor–perceived work ability linkage: a daily diary study. Work, Aging and Retirement, 5(2), 163-174.

Cort W. Rudolph
Associate Professor of Industrial & Organizational Psychology