Let’s see your papers: the effects of credentialing on older workers

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In this essay, I contend that the increasingly prolific role of ‘credentialing’ by employers in industrialised societies, is placing exacting pressures upon older workers (those aged 40+) who are, both directly and implicitly, required to validate their experience and skills via the mode of formalised educational credentials. In an increasingly globalised and thus competitive workforce, many older workers are engaging in ‘defensive’ educational credentialing, despite misgivings about both its practical value in performing their jobs, and the effects upon the stratification and perceptions of inequality amongst workers within the organisation in which they operate.

The term ‘credentialism’ or a ‘credential society,’ is defined as “the use of diplomas and degrees to determine who is eligible for jobs, even though the diplomas or degrees may be irrelevant to the actual work” (Henslin 2014). The term is not a new one; in fact, it was noted as early as the 1960s by researchers, including Strauss and Wilensky (Diamond 1972) and in the 1970s, as “one of the most striking features of our society” (Diamond 1972). In practical terms, it is a method for employers to easily match people to jobs. That is, a criterion upon which they can easily rely to assess if a person will adequately perform a particular job. In a world in which there is substantial anonymity surrounding the transaction between employer and interviewee, hirers are increasingly relying on a perceived objective and reliable way of assessing the suitability of potential candidates to join their workforces.

There are many reasons cited for the rise in emphasis by employers in industrialised countries, particularly the United States, of the credentials of potential employees. A persuasive contention, however, argues that in a globalised world with a rapid sense of momentum at its core, it is virtually impossible for hirers to have the luxury of making hiring decisions based on subjective judgements, when they are really at a loss to truly judge and evaluate the job performance ability of candidates. As a result, and based on the American need for perceived objective and scientific parameters (Volti 2012), employers deem the reliance on a person’s credentials a fair and reliable method by which to assess the latter’s suitability. In this way, employers can follow rather simple rules rather than rely on potentially bias and time-consuming subjective judgements (Diamond 1972).

Embedded in this methodology, however, is the perception by employers that with rapid technological changes occurring in the workplace, they need a workforce with higher education levels to design, implement, and monitor these adaptations. That is, the skills needed by workers are constantly soaring as the demands of the workplace become more complex (Brown 2001). As a result, employers see it as imperative that their workforce is adequately prepared – and flexible enough – to adapt to technological, societal, and market forces as they arise and affect an organisation.

Overarching these needs, however, is the desire for employers to assess the ‘human capital’of prospective employees. That is, the intangible attributes people possess and deemed essential to an organisation’s ability to thrive. Such attributes and skills as personal appearance, aptitudes, abilities, and personal qualities (Volti 2012), are all deemed as a cumulative representation of a potential employee’s ability to, not only adequately perform a desired job, but to also assimilate into the organisation’s culture, and adapt to both internal and external factors affecting the organisation’s survival. In this way, the most common determinant of the value of a person’s human capital is that of education. That is, employers place a heavy reliance, not necessarily on what a person has studied, but on the fact that the person must have had substantial self -discipline, motivation, and organisational skills, to name but a few, to attain this level of education.

Besides aiding the selection process of future employees, many professions have attempted to differentiate their levels of autonomy and uniqueness (Volti 2012) from other vocations by elevating the educational requirements needed to enter their profession. By default, they attempt to elevate perceived levels of prestige for their trade. As a result, the mid-twentieth century onwards has seen a proliferation in the number of professions requiring tertiary education as a prerequisite for entry.

A perhaps unforeseen effect of this emphasis on a person’s education attainment levels, is the mentality of students to focus on achieving defined grades to secure specific employment, rather than on an appreciation of the actual learning. In a seemingly concentrated learning environment, students, perhaps by necessity, are required to produce tangible results as grades showing employability potential.

A further, and arguably more insidious consequence, is that this method of employment serves to disallow certain segments of the population applying, let alone entering, particular fields of employment. As many hirers use this system to assess the worthiness of a candidate to perform a particular job, without it, they are at a loss to assess an applicant’s suitability. The only competing factor which may allude to a worker’s competencies is experience. In a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor (sic.) in the early 1970s on the hiring requirements in ten major low and semi-skilled occupations where labour shortages were of concern (Diamond 1972), it was found that whilst some employers were keen to hire people with no experience in the industry in order to be more easily ‘moulded’ to the corporate culture, most industries required previous work experience within the industry. Nevertheless, the issue of education is still the dominant criteria by which hirers assess candidates’ suitability. In this way, “the real significance of formal education in general and higher education in particular is that they act as filters, screens, or signals that favour some job candidates for hiring and promotion while others are blocked” (Volti 2012).

Whilst many studies have focused on the effects of a credential society on younger people transitioning into the workforce, fewer studies have been conducted on the ramifications for people forty years and above. One study (Isopahkala-Bouret 2015), however, found Finnish workers aged over fifty returning to university did so for two main reasons: a quest for greater career mobility; and the verification of well-earned experience. Regarding obtaining either a new job within their industry or a promotion within an organisation, these workers felt that additional educational qualifications – particularly a master’s degree – would enhance their employment prospects whilst simultaneously reducing ageist stereotypes, especially during the recruitment process (Isopahkala-Bouret 2015). Furthermore, regardless of the experience these mature-aged workers had inevitably accumulated performing their roles, they still felt the need to formally verify their experience and knowledge via the tool of formalised education. To this end, many in this study felt they had now formalised their knowledge in a way that gave greater security to their position by either meeting legal obligations or through satisfying organisational or societal expectations.

Interestingly, whilst many of these workers displayed their updated credentials on formal organisational material (such as websites and business cards), they were more selective in circulating this information within their organisation, fearing backlash or jealousy from other older workers who may not possess, or be able to gain, further education to pursue career advancement opportunities (Isopahkala-Bouret 2015). This reluctance to broadly advertise their new credentials also stemmed from acknowledgement that whilst increased educational qualifications may aid in solidifying their employment contract within an organisation, practically, it made little difference to how they performed their duties or viewed their work. Instead, they argued that, if anything, it only intensified inequalities, competition, and segmentation within the organisation which they found unsavoury.

This case study is demonstrable of the insecurity older workers feel in an increasingly globally competitive workforce. Despite workers aged 50 to 64 comprising 24.7% of the active European labour force (Eurostat, 2012a) and predicted to increase, older workers wrestle with a sense of insecurity about their position within the workforce. Whether attempting to enter new professions or retain existing positions, these particular workers feel increased pressure to compete with younger workers more qualified than themselves. Indeed, as employers have access to more highly educated workers on a global scale, older workers believe employers see their traditional credentials as antiquated and irrelevant to their positions, despite years of experience and status they may possess. Furthermore, with many professions aiming to increase their prestige and thus differentiate themselves from others, the attainment of exalted qualifications not previously required is now suddenly deemed as mandatory for basic entry into and recognition of many industries.

Consequently, many older workers are engaging in ‘defensive’ educational credentialing whereby “aging workers are forced to upgrade formal qualifications to that of today’s graduates so that they are not left behind by the younger generation” (Beaver 2009). This is different from ongoing work-related training conducted with the support of the organisation but not attributing formal qualifications to the student. Many older workers are familiar with this type of education and see it as necessary to refresh and upgrade their skills and knowledge within an industry. A lack of external, formal tertiary education, however, may prove a barrier to those older workers wanting to progress their career. Furthermore, with many policymakers around the world deeming education credentials the benchmark by which to judge a worker’s job abilities and performance, some positions are now legally obliged to have only ‘suitably credentialed’ employees perform them: another reason some older workers must embellish their educational qualifications.

These outlooks for older workers are framed within dramatic economic, technological, and social global changes that prioritise, not only knowledge, but the gaining of that knowledge (Pillay 2003). Indeed, the commercial world is experiencing many changes, including shifts from mass production to flexible specialisation; a move away from manufactured production to the proliferation of information processing activities; along with expectations of individual creativity, innovation, and adaptability, to name but a few (Pillay 2003). This is coupled with an expectation of workers’ continuous and lifelong learning to contend with these fast-paced changes. However, restrictions presented by both structural obstacles and personal attitudes may hinder the ability of older workers to keep abreast of these rapid changes. In this way, older workers may find themselves disadvantaged in a competitive global workplace that both directly and implicitly expects all workers, no matter their age or experience, to take responsibility for their individual learning and show this with upgraded, formal qualifications.

In conclusion, we can see that the prevalence of a ‘credentialed society’ places considerable pressures upon older workers as they seek to compete with a more globalised and educated workforce. The perception of employers that an interviewee’s credentials provide an objective guide to their suitability, is deemed crucial in an environment seeking to differentiate itself through exclusion. As a result, despite the accumulation of experience and skills, many older workers feel obliged to upgrade their skills through formal educational qualifications to either justify their positions or apply for promotions within and outside their workplace. Additionally, older workers may be excluded from applying or retaining their positions by not having access to the resources or capabilities required to successfully undertake further education – further adding to concerns surrounding the precariousness of their position. Although there is some evidence to show that the credentials of employees meets the demands imposed by employers (Walters 2004), historical evidence demonstrates there may not be a ceiling on the credentials required, as “there is great potential for further differentiation and growth (as the increase in master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral training today may indicate)” (Brown 2001) – all of which only serves to compound increasing pressures already placed upon older workers operating within a globally competitive environment.


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