The caravans and passageways of ageing workers

Lee Sarandopoulos headshot

5 minute read

Lee Sarandopoulos from The Australian National University (ANU) College of Business and Economics (CBE) recently completed her PhD. Her thesis, Passageways & Caravans: A Resource-Based Approach to Understanding Structural Constraints on Successful Aging at Work explores the factors that keep ageing populations in the workforce, or encourage them to leave.

Using diverse qualitative and quantitative research methods, Lee’s PhD research shows how social inequality shapes individual careers and organisational outcomes.

“My research integrates theoretical frameworks, including conservation of resources, successful ageing at work, psychology of working, and cumulative advantage and disadvantage,” she says.

Lee has fifteen years of experience successfully leading diverse teams in the Federal Government, as well as leveraging research capabilities to deliver client engagement, user research and service-design functions, and frontline client services.

We recently interviewed Lee to gain an understanding of her PhD topic and higher degree research (HDR) student experience at CBE’s Research School of Management.

Why are you specifically interested in ageing populations in the workforce?

Going into the PhD program, I was broadly aware of the challenges that an ageing population structure poses for individuals, organisations and governments. However, my key interest was in looking at social inequality and how this shapes work outcomes for people. My panel chair, Professor Prashant Bordia, encouraged me to think about ageing workers, as this would give me the opportunity to look at the role of lifetime experiences and multi-level factors in shaping work and career outcomes in later life.

Why do you think it’s important to prolong labour-force participation? What are the social and economic benefits?

Prolonging labour-force participation is one of many levers available to address ageing population structures. Enabling people to continue working is important because of the benefits that work can provide people, including relationships, financial resources, and psychological and physical benefits, which will set them up for good outcomes once they stop working. This also enables organisations to retain knowledge and skills within their operations that would be lost through employee retirement. Continued participation provides broader benefits in the sense that retaining more people in the working population provides a tax base to support the non-working population and removes pressure from systems like pensions and social security.

You talk about resource passageways and caravans being part of the potential constraints on ageing populations. Can you explain what they are, and expand on which passageways and caravans had the greatest influence on individuals’ decision to leave the workforce based on your findings?

Resource caravans and passageways are concepts from the Conservation of Resources Theory. Resource caravans are the unique combination of personal resources – social, financial, physical, psychological, cognitive, time, knowledge and skill – that a person has available to them at any point in time. Resource passageways are the things about a person and the experiences they have had, in the place and time they have lived, that operate to shape the quality and amount of resources in their caravan.

My research shows that everyone’s unique resource passageway shapes their resource caravans in different ways. Generally, the ‘richer’ your passageway is in terms of opportunities and benefits, the more enabling your resource caravan will be down the track. Conversely, a more ‘barren’ passageway with few opportunities and more likelihood of experiences that will deplete your resources, means a resource caravan that constrains your options later in life.

One of the more interesting findings in my study resulted from looking at people’s decisions to stay in the workforce. Those who have more enabling resource caravans, i.e. more resources of higher quality, and who would probably continue to perform well often have less need or desire to remain. Conversely those who have a more constraining caravan, i.e. less resources, of poorer quality, don’t necessarily want to remain in the workforce, but need to because they don’t have the resources to give them other choices.

For me, this highlights that blanket approaches by organisations and governments to retain older workers and manage their performance at work needs to recognise the different resource base people are coming from, what has shaped this, and how it influences their behaviours and decisions.

How do you envision your research being used to positively benefit the workforce?

I would love to see my research applied in practice to coach people on developing and boosting their resources, and facilitate real choice in different transitions across their lives, from school to work, between jobs, in pursuing other life experiences and when deciding to retire.

I would also like to see my research feed into organisational practices and policy making that recognises not everyone has had the opportunities and benefits to develop and maintain all their different types of personal resources. Organisations and governments have a continued role to play through policies and programs to actively support and provide opportunities for people to build their resources, and to try and remove some of the factors that deplete people’s resources across their lives.

Are you currently engaged in further research around this topic, and what are your plans beyond HDR life?

I’m currently working on getting my studies into good shape for journal submissions, and I’m always tinkering with ideas for new studies. At the moment I’m working full-time for the Australian government. However, my plan is to keep undertaking research as a “side hustle” because I enjoy the research process and I’m keen to pursue a blended career. I’m thinking about how I can maximise my resources to prolong my working life in a sustainable and enjoyable way!

What compelled you to pursue a PhD, and what’s your HDR experience been like at CBE?

I undertook an Honours year at the end of my undergraduate studies and enjoyed the research process. I had always intended to pursue a research degree and I got to a point in my professional life where I felt developing my research skillset would complement my industry experience well.

My HDR experience at CBE has been amazing! My panel were incredibly knowledgeable and supportive throughout my entire PhD journey. I was afforded many opportunities to develop my research skills, including the course requirements of the PhD program itself, conferences, training and seminars. The PhD program will challenge you in many ways, but you will come out of it with a solid research skillset, and amazing networks and friendships.

The College is always keen to explore research collaborations with the public and private sector and to reconnect with alumni. Please get in touch if you would like to know more about partnering with us.