Journal Article

Narrating 'potential': Older knowledge workers' anticipatory narratives about their future employment


This article examines the narratives of 24 knowledge workers aged 48-58 as they anticipate their future employment and employability. The term knowledge worker is used to indicate occupational roles such as software engineer, academic, architect, manager and lawyer, where work involves non-routine problem-solving using 'intellectual assets'. Four narrative patterns about future employment are presented - winding down; reorienting 'self' away from work; seeking progression; renewal. These patterns reveal contrasting self-evaluations of employability and potential. We argue that employability is not a straightforward function of human capital, which usually refers to experience, knowledge and qualifications. We show through our data how judgements about a person’s employability – both self-evaluations as well as evaluations by others - are complicated by social norms and cultural understandings of 'potential'. Strategies to signal one's potential become more complex and sometimes less effective for older knowledge workers. We contend that a person's age influences others' evaluations of their employment potential, such that the relationship between attributed merit (based largely on past experience) and attributed potential (based on assumptions about a person's future) is inverted as workers become older. The findings have implications for public policies such as Extending Working Lives. Policies that remove legal and institutional barriers to extended working lives may be only partially successful without changes to cultural attitudes about older workers' employment potential.

Attached files


Handley, Karen
den Outer, Birgit

Oxford Brookes departments

Oxford Brookes Business School


Year of publication: 2020
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-02-12

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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