Numerous studies of wild animal species have documented that population level responses to environmental change are underpinned by individual level phenotypic plasticity. However, where the relationship between an individual trait and a climate variable occurs when both show a trend over time, phenotypic plasticity may be confounded by ageing. We investigated between and within individual change in laying date in the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, a long-lived species experiencing a dramatic decline in population size. Laying date has advanced over the last three decades. A mean-centering analysis demonstrated that this pattern was driven by within-individual changes as opposed to appearance or disappearance of phenotypes. Furthermore, a lack of between individual effect suggested the change resulted from ageing as opposed to phenotypic plasticity. Females varied significantly in rate of advance, such that those with low past reproductive rates exhibited a negative temporal trend in laying date, whereas birds with moderate to high past reproductive performance showed little change. The population trend was therefore driven by a subset with low past breeding success. An analysis of effects of timing of breeding on breeding success revealed stabilizing selection for relative laying date. Furthermore, current breeding success was positively related to past success rate, which suggests that there may be indirect selection against plasticity in this population. Our results show that population trends can arise from individual level change unrelated to prevailing environmental conditions, thus demonstrating the importance of longitudinal analyses in the interpretation of climate change effects.