Ann E. Schlotzhauer, B.A., University of Central Florida; Kristin A. Horan, Ph.D., University of Central Florida; Emily G. Hill, B.A., University of Central Florida; Kenzie Dye, B.A., University of Central Florida; Mindy K. Shoss, Ph.D., University of Central Florida; Mark G. Ehrhart, Ph.D., University of Central Florida
Coping effectiveness is highly dependent on the context in which the stressor occurs. Specifically, problem-focused forms of coping are most effective in changeable contexts, and emotion-focused forms of coping are most effective in unchangeable contexts (Collins et al., 1983). The COVID-19 crisis represents a largely unchangeable context (Rudolph et al., 2020). Placing the developmental pattern of coping in this context, we expect age allows individuals to better recognize and cope with disruptive crises. Better management of stress will likely be manifested in other relevant outcomes (Bandura, 1997; Benight & Bandura, 2004), including resilience, well-being, stress, and COVID-related rumination. Hypothesis 1: Age is positively correlated with (a) resilience and (b) well-being. Hypothesis 2: Age is negatively correlated with (a) COVID-related rumination and (b) stress.
Age differences in coping suggest that younger people rely on active, problem-focused forms of coping (e.g., confrontation), whereas older people rely on passive, emotion-focused forms of coping (e.g., positive reappraisal; Folkman et al., 1987). This progression between disparate coping strategies is, in part, a product of the developmental increase in passivity and overall maturation that comes with aging, and likely stems from a greater ability to recognize which problems are controllable and which are not (Diehl et al., 1996). We apply this evidence to the disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and investigate age differences in resilience, well-being, rumination, and stress in two highly-impacted samples.
Sample 1 was composed of faculty members (n = 340) and undergraduate students (n = 1898) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) specialties across 25 institutions. Participants reported their current age in years (M = 28.2, SD = 14.5) and responded to an established measure of stress (Cohen et al., 1983). Resilience was measured using the positively-worded items from Smith and colleagues (2008) and a scale by Horowitz and colleagues (1979) was adapted to reflect COVID-related rumination (e.g., “I had waves of strong feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic”). All scales demonstrated good internal consistency; see Table 1.
Sample 2 was collected in May 2020 and included 240 hospitality employees. The hospitality industry was selected for this study due to COVID-19’s deleterious impact on employment in this sector (BLS, 2020). Participants were primarily (71.3%) female and (78.4%) Caucasian. Participants averaged 27.10 (SD = 6.53) years of age. Participants responded to a 6-item measure of well-being (Banks et al., 1980). See Table 2 for descriptive statistics and internal consistency.
In sample 1, age was found to correlate positively with resilience (r = 0.21, p < .001), providing support for hypothesis 1a. Age also correlated negatively with both stress (r = -0.37, p < .001) and COVID-related rumination (r = -0.12, p < .001) in sample 1, supporting hypothesis 2. Further, in sample 2, age correlated positively with well-being (r = 0.16, p < .05), providing support for hypothesis 1b.
Age was positively associated with resilience in our sample of students and faculty in STEM fields and with well-being in our hospitality sample. This finding is of particular interest as those of advanced age are at greater risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 (CDC, 2021). Despite the increased risk, our findings demonstrate that age’s established relationship with coping mechanisms and related outcomes holds true during the pandemic.
Our research is strengthened by the use of two large samples that were highly impacted by the pandemic. However, the specificity of our sample (i.e., STEM students and faculty and hospitality employees) limits generalizability. Our findings are also limited as a result of self-report data and cross-sectional design. Further, the mean age in both samples was relatively low; older populations may be more inclined to report increased stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated risks.
Nonetheless, these findings provide an interesting foundation for future research. Moving forward, researchers should seek to establish these relationships longitudinally and across more diverse samples.
Despite increased risk to older populations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, age was positively related to resilience and well-being and negatively related to COVID-related rumination and stress in two samples highly impacted by the pandemic.