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What makes older federal workers’ job satisfaction decline?

Note: I work for the Washington Post to produce our weekly “Fed Buzz” column, written by GovLoop staff. The column appears on the Fed Page of WashingtonPost.com. If you have ideas for questions you’d like us to explore in the weekly column, please send me a message through GovLoop or email [email protected]

You can also chime in on our weekly conversations on Twitter using the hashtag #FedBuzz.

Alicia Mazzara wrote in last week’s Fed Buzz about a recent study by the Partnership for Public Service that found job satisfaction was higher among younger federal workers. Many of you weighed in before the column and a few GovLoopers (Jack Shaw, Daniel Crystal and Mark Hammer) were quoted in the column.

GovLooper Kerry Ann O’Connor gave a very thoughtful response on a Daily Dose post about her personal and professional attempts to maintain enthusiasm over the years:

O’Connor wrote: “You come in wanting to fight the good fight, to make government better, to serve the people, and you leave counting your blessings that you could pay your mortgage? Is that really what it’s all about? Say it ain’t so!

“Somewhere, in the midst of our careers, we lose perspective. When you begin to operate from a place of fear, you get tunnel vision.”

If you’re struggling with a loss of job satisfaction because you just aren’t as enthusiastic about your position anymore, read the specific steps O’Connor mentions, or leave more tips for keeping job satisfaction and enthusiasm high.

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Faye Newsham

I’ve seen it happen from the outside – as a long-time contractor… they do come in all excited and are soon ground down by red tape, rules that can’t be escaped, and inefficient systems that were out of fashion 20 years ago. The ones who stay in government past this time end up perpetuating the system they railed against when they started. I’ve seen it happen in 3 months, 3 years, and over a 20 year period. A few, a very few, of the truely energetic souls manage to keep a certain amount of enthusiasm throughout their careers. These are rarely appreciated, even less often promoted, and frequently just fade away at retirement with no one knowing what it is they did…even when they can’t figure out why things aren’t as good as they used to be. The remaining staff often fail to recognize it was the personal effort of the retired go-getter who was quietly working behind the scenes that made things really “work”. With that said, you will occasionally see groups of like-minded go-getters who pool together to make a pocket of success. They keys, from the outside perspective, appear to be learning the red tape and regulations that can’t be escaped and making those work for you, actively seeking to change the ones that are harmful, and banishing the idea that the behemouth can’t be moved.

Jerry Slipko

There really is no incentive to grow career wise. Pay systems that promote growth and reward for production do not exist. Everyone is conformed to the norm.

Mark Hammer

I’ve mentioned many times the growing research literature on what gets referred to as “public service motivation”. Plug that into your favourite search engine and you’ll find lots to chew on. One of the relatively consistent findings is that those whose motives lead them to value the public interest, self-sacrifice, and similar things, are more likely to be drawn towards careers in the public sector. That needn’t be federal public service jobs exclusively. It could be in education, public safety (policing, firefighting), or even in areas where the job itself provides a daily service to people (e.g., delivering the mail, handling customer complaints).

What hasn’t been explored quite as much is the issue of what happens when the job properties and context do not permit one to express that motivation as much as anticipated or hoped for. In other words, what happens to employee engagement when there is a contrast between their motivation and what is possible or typical within the job. Psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that, after mid-life, people start to become more concerned with what he called “generativity” – giving back, leaving something of yourself behind after you’re gone, etc. Put those two notions together, and it suggests that there can be increased pressure over time for the job to live up to some set of employee objectives.

That’s not going to be true in every case, of course. We tend to forget (as do many of the PSM researchers themselves) just how many federal employees and public sector workers are doing the same sort of thing they might do for an accounting or insurance or advertising firm or manufacturer. They didn’t come into the job expecting to be policy wonks or change the world. They came expecting a decent job with a stable employer and an opportunity to do their best. Any public interest aspects are simply a nice addition. Those folks may seek their generativity in how they raise their kids, their interaction with neighbours or congregation/community, volunteer activities, etc. In other words, what they expected the job to provide them does nothing to stifle or thwart their sense of “generativity” or ability to pursue it.

And then there are others for whom the job may embody a means to express that PSM side of themselves. Initially, they may be thrilled just to be working in the public sector. Simply having the job represents the fulfillment of those motives. With time, though, it becomes more likely that they ask themselves whether they are really getting anything done, or, as my son recently described his job to me, moving numbers from here to there.

The takehome message is that, with time and tenure, some jobs may also have a lot more to live up to. I don’t know how long it takes for people to start saying “You know, I’ve been doing this for X years, and I still don’t feel (or don’t feel anymore) like I’m really doing anything for the public interest.”. That’s not at all a diss at the jobs. Some folks may have jobs in places that allow unimpeded following through on one’s PSM. Some folks may have less realistic or more realistic visions of what that’s going to be. Some folks have lower or higher thresholds of frustration. And of course, plenty of folks often find their “PSM” is sated by simply being decent and helpful to their co-workers; so-called “organizational citizenship behaviours”, such that even when the job doesn’t easily facilitate the pursuit of those public-interest things they signed up for, they can still go home at the end of the day contented by the pleasant interactions they’ve had with people at work, and all the appreciative “thank you”.

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM


I’m wondering what defines an “older worker” as well. But, I’ll go out on a limb here.

I’ve worked as a full-time federal employee for the past 27 years consistently.

I’m over 50 years of age.

Personally, something that is not mentioned here is that life kicks in. As we get older, priorities shift. Things in our personal space affect what is important. When we are younger, some of these challenges are nonexistent. Younger employees are free to focus and place their enthusiasm in other areas (like job). The rosy-colored glasses of youth are worn proudly. As they should be.

As we get older, we tend (or are forced) to re prioritize to other places. This includes our work enthusiasm. Other places need it more. Things like;

  • Taking care of an ailing mom or dad
  • Taking care of a child, spouse or partner
  • Deeply rooted martial/spousal issues (e.g., addictions)
  • Dealing with cancer, debilitating arthritis, etc

In a lot of cases, the older worker isn’t really less enthusiastic about work. There’s only so much enthusiasm to go around. It’s needed in places that didn’t exist in our youth. This post isn’t meant to be a excuse; but more of an reality check.

Natalie Jennings

@James, I love the quote “There’s only so much enthusiasm to go around.”

I think the PPS study drew the line at 30. I certainly don’t consider over-30 to be old! But for the purposes of this study, the younger set was the most satisfied. I probably should have phrased it as “more experienced” in my title.

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM


Title was great. The word “old” has become one of those perceptual words. It makes you think-n-apply when you see/hear it. I wouldn’t change a thing!

Mark Hammer

There’s “older” and there’s more tenure. I didn’t join the PS until I was 45. In my case, critical amounts of tenure, and inflection points, accrued at an age range where some of you would have already logged several decades.

I think whatever changes occur (assuming they do in any given case) are a function of some joint effect of both age and tenure. Some will have acquired the tenure at an earlier age than others.

Additionally, I think there are two different things being discussed here: “enthusiasm” and “satisfaction”. They certainly overlap, but they aren’t exactly the same thing.

Dannielle Blumenthal

As a communicator I think job satisfaction is correlated with a culture of open, clear and fair communication. Meaning employees provide suggestions and get credit for them; they vote on others’ work and can be part of constructive change; they call attention to problems and are listened to; they seek out the camaraderie of others in difficult times and are supported. And of course that the organization sets up structures to encourage good communication, too.

Kathy Sciannella

As an over 50 government employee who has only been with Federal government for 3 years, I’d say the decline of enthusiasm comes from our length of experience. When management rolls out the next big thing, you say, “Hmm, been there; done that.” There is not too much which is completely new.

Another issue is your priorities change as you age. When I was younger, I was far more driven — now not as much. Many of us have survived major life events (divorce, death, health crisis) and our perspective is different. Your values evolve over time. My job is no longer the number one thing in my life though it is very important.

I think the waning of enthusiasma is part of the maturation process and that is fine. We need both sides, the wide-eyed enthusiastic people who want to shake things up and take on the world, AND the (sometimes) older employee who is more jaded. The ying and the yang.

One way to keep enthusiams longer is to keep growing as a person. Learn new things, have new experiences, get out of your comfort zone (even if its taking a new route to work.) Shake things up perodically and that keeps you fresher. In my case, I went back to school in my 40’s and changed my career path. My peers in age who are very jaded, have stayed in the same career for 30 plus years. I am learning new things and meeting new people so my enthusiasm has stayed higher due to that.

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM

@Kathy Sciannella

Your balancing methods are spot on. I too finished graduate school in my 40’s and classify myself as a life learner. I can only add being receptive to mentoring younger employees as a way to keep the work enthusiasm high. There’s nothing more exciting than having than having those wide eyed newbies (I call them diamonds in the rough) who will gravitate towards your life knowledge, tenured work experience (after all you have more than them!) and your willingness to give back. It’s a beautiful thing. The funny part is that you don’t have to do anything special; they will watch-n-find you.

Ashley Fuchs

When I started my job I had someone tell me “Your still young enough to think you can make a difference” in a tone like they were talking about unicorns and fairies.

Susan Thomas

@Ashley, Some people are very jaded and like to project their feelings. After all my years in government, I still feel I make a difference. It’s a matter of attitude. Ignore the naysayers and stay focused!

Letha E. Strothers

I’m right in the middle–young enough to understand the extreme enthusiasm of young employees, but old enough to temper it with a bit of realism. My focus has definitely changed over the years, as I’ve married, dealt with aging parents, faced the challenges of starting/raising a family. When those things are going on there isn’t enough energy to maintain enthusiasm-in-action, but a general enthusiasm for the type of work that I do and the mission of the agency remain.

As each life change and challenge passes, I find a few months in between to get enthusiastic about the job again. As I age (and get more tenure) I try to stay enthusiastic by engaging as much as possible in projects and tasks that I enjoy; interacting with co-workers I enjoy’; and seeking opportunities to learn something new.

I also try to recognize that even the work itself is only part of the job, and the job is just a portion of the total life experience. There have been times when I felt that just coming into the office might have been my purpose for the day. I may not even know who I encountered, spoke to, or gave advice to that indirectly either helped them or helped further the mission of the agency. And then there are days–particularly when responding to email from citizens–when I know for sure that what I did made a difference.

Deena Larsen

I think it is that we see so many failures. Hmmm…. been there. Done that. Got the coffee mug. Management didn’t support it and it failed. Management is not supporting this effort… hmmmm.. yeah… let me know when we’ve failed enough to earn the coffee mug.

Seriously, I still just put on a “we can do it” hat and point out things positively (Maybe we should figure out what management NEEDS and then tailor this to solve THOSE problems????)

Ginny Ivanoff

First off, to answer Susan’s question – as to what constitutes “older” – I believe it is a matter of being senior in terms of experience as opposed to calendar age.

I know who I am and my value isn’t determined by what I do for a living. Yes, I could go on, ad nauseam, about favoritism, ideas being shot down, regulations that create inefficiency. I have been at this, i.e., government work, for over twenty-seven years and I still believe there is a way to effect change and I and others have done so. In a sense, we work for a huge non-profit and persistence, tact, building good relationships, and patience are all essential qualities to cultivate as success tools.

Sounds hokey, but I remember that I am a civil servant, one whose job is to take care of our nation and its citizens. Sometimes it disheartening when even Congress disrespects us, but our responsibilities come first…. Even when I was doing something, like basic accounting that was done in every sector of industry, it was great knowing I supported our soldiers/sailors or world-renown medical research or disaster recovery efforts: something for the public good.

I expect a mass exodus of Feds in the next 5 years. I’ll probably leave (Congress permitting) when I get to my MRA (I came on during the first year of FERS) so I can open space for a new generation to come in with fresher ideas, greater technology capability and a mandate to completely change how we in the government do business. I welcome that. They can expand what we (I am at the very tail end of the Boomer generation) started…for those of you who are interested in how much Federal employment has changed one source is available from the OPM: “Biography of an Ideal: A History of the Federal Civil Service.”


Ed Powell

I truly enjoyed every federal job that I had over a 30 year career. I worked with great people and had the opportunity to have great impact. There were many times when my staff and I worked long hours over nights and through weekends and our only regrets were for the time we missed with our families. It was exciting and rewarding. What more could you want?

Mark Hammer

One question to ask is whether any proposed or presumed downward trajectory is common across all types of federal employees, or more typical of certain categories than others. As I suggested earlier, people enter the federal workforce with different expectations about the role and what the hope to do with it, and different work contexts provide greater and lesser opportunities to realize them.

One can pursue this by looking at the published results from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: http://www.fedview.opm.gov/2010/

Lori Reichert

I’ve had an excellent career in the government. My challenge as a senior employee is that I’m still an extreme extravert with lots of energy and yet I see leaders wanting to nurture the younger employees. It seems like I’m looked over because of my age. It is a sad reality for many in my organization once you look older and are older, things change as far as development goes. Once an employee is no longer developed, sent on training, given unique projects – it only goes to say they would disengage.

Ginny Ivanoff

Lori: The best way to continue to learn and grow now is to become a mentor: not only do you share what you have learned in your time as a Fed, you will learn from your mentees as they bring new ideas to the table or you do research to pass on information that will help your mentee along. You will be providing a valuable service to your agencey by growing the next generation of leaders and can also pay huge dividends to the mentor as well. In an effective mentoring relationship, the mentor can achieve enhanced professional development, personal satisfaction, sharpened leadership skills, and expanded personal contacts.