Young bosses supervising older workers fosters resentment, harms performance

competitionBy Alex Fradera

Places of work have become fairer thanks to their embrace of meritocracy: the idea that the best person for the job is the right person for the job. Formal assessment processes, for example, help ensure that interviews are granted on merit, rather than allocating them based on which resumes remind the hiring manager of a younger version of themselves. One consequence of meritocracy is the replacement of seniority-based promotion – you get a better position when “it’s your time” – with one based on ability, a development that means younger people with the appropriate skills can leapfrog older colleagues and end up managing them. Unfortunately, according to new research in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, this can have nasty repercussions.

Florian Kunze and Jochen Menges surveyed employees at 61 German companies, based primarily in the service industry, but also finance, manufacturing, and trade. Nearly 8000 participants described their age difference in relation to their managers, and a subset reported their experience of various negative emotions over the last six months. Managers tended to be older than those they managed, but on average a quarter of relationships did involve younger managers. Crucially, in companies where the size of the age gap was larger between younger managers and older subordinates, employees tended to report more negative emotions, such as anger or fear, experienced over the last six months.

Why would this be? Consider how the older subordinates might feel. We tend to measure our life progress by using our peers as a benchmark, particularly those in our age cohort, who may provoke a flush of envy if they rise far past us. But more brutal yet is when those who should be behind us pull ahead, rubbing our faces in our own inability to keep pace. And when such a person is managing you, it’s hard to avoid this.

More broadly, being under the supervision of someone younger than us is a simple status incongruence, like being lectured on your dress sense by your precocious 8-year-old nephew. This is an engine for resentment-based negative emotions. Such emotions, Kunze and Menges suggest, can then reverberate through the wider organisation, especially – and as established by diversity research – because employees will typically pay more attention to what happens to colleagues who tend to stand out, or in this case, to relationships that deviate from the norm.

Kunze and Menges also asked the leadership of each company to report their recent financial performance, as well as measures of productivity and efficiency. After controlling for company size and efficiency, they found that companies experiencing more negative emotions showed worse performance on all counts. More youthful managers of older subordinates, therefore, contribute to worse company performance through the negative emotions their existence encourages, presumably through sapping morale and enthusiasm for collective effort in the face of so much frustration.

The data revealed a buffer against this harmful outcome, but it’s a bitter pill to ask anyone to swallow: when employees reported that suppressing their emotions was the norm in their organisation, age differentials didn’t lead to more negative emotions in the wider organisation. The researchers reasoned that when emotions are unexpressed, there is no signal to the rest of the workforce that something is up, so they can go about their days in blissful ignorance. But this isn’t to solve the problem, but to distil it into a smaller but more concentrated form, as long-term emotion suppression can lead to depression, damaged health, and impaired cognitive performance, a cruel fate to which to consign these older workers.

But companies shouldn’t “revert to the old workplace with traditional age structures”, say Kunze and Menges, because their research says nothing about the overall benefits of merit-based promotion. However, they do believe the negative repercussions that they’ve revealed should be addressed. One suggestion is to help older subordinates make sense of their feelings and explore whether they can come to terms with them rather than simply suppress them. Another suggestion, which I warmly advocate, is to address the root causes, changing the culture around “career time tables” and addressing issues of hierarchy and voice, so that old-timers, whether managers or not, can share their accrued wisdom and fully participate in the organisations to which they have given for so long.

Younger supervisors, older subordinates: An organizational-level study of age differences, emotions, and performance

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

14 thoughts on “Young bosses supervising older workers fosters resentment, harms performance”

  1. Very interesting article, I would just like to highlight a component that may or may not have been addressed. I am 61 years old and only qualified as a psychologist in 2002 at the age of 47. When I started out I was never aware of any need to be seen as other than a fledgling practitioner. I was related to as someone who was perhaps more capable than I actually felt but due to that I rapidly took on more responsibility. I never shirked the hard work that put me under and I thrived.That was until work practices started to create inequalities. This came on the back of the re-structuring of services and removed the ability of working up the ladder so to speak. What has taken place was the removal of the more senior staff by retiring earlier than they might have and the rise of junior members of staff into senior posts. Some people got left behind and have even gone backwards. I have just got stuck. I am not given any authority at all anymore and I am talked to like I am a child. There is a complete lack of respect and of any acknowledgement of my abilities. In fact I think I can honestly say that in a perverse take on the thrust of this article I get the strong impression that younger managers feel threatened by me or do not know how to approach me. Personally I resent the lack of career progress since the re-structuring rather than it being about being supervised by a younger(in age terms) supervisor or manager. Might this not be a reality for many older colleagues who may not actually expect to just be given a high ranking job by the amount of experience and age or years in a job. Instead, they may just see that the lack of real opportunities has created work envy on a massive scale and that as those chances diminish and that far from equality of opportunity for all there is a distinct backlash against you as you enter your 50’s. You are more likely to be seen as past your best and no amount of experience is ever as good as your ability to look all shiny and new, and full of ideas. I am not sure if your research took those issues into account but hope that it will look at inequality of opportunity for older working people (at least over 50). Younger managers need to nurture the experienced worker and show them that there is an opportunity for advancement for them too. I am not done yet.

  2. I can confirm that from personal experience. I have been in higher managerial ranks when I was younger then I am currently. When I look at myself in that age I am seeing young, cocky, frightened (and because of that angry), not – balanced person, who wants to use shortcuts to solve an issues, not taking care about the people too much.

    So, in my opinion being manager is not just a question of ambition and energy, but also in experience, self-confidence, calmness, understanding of other people, alignment business process and goals with people etc. Being older is not enough to be an manager to younger people, but this is one of the prerequisites. Advice to young managers and workers – observe, learn, validate and contemplate how things You see in You environment – how Your actions and actions of others are noticed and accepted from other people. Change what is necessary to be changed.

  3. It would be fascinating to understand if the resentment felt is warranted – assuming not all young managers are bad, is the level of resentment correlated with their performance as managers or are these good managers, who are perceived as being bad due to age (the comments on this article equate young managers = bad managers – is that just ageist or is that correct?).

    I would be interested to see how gender + race intersects with this as well. I would assume the resentment would be even stronger towards young female / non-dominant race managers – was this something that the study looked at?

    Very interesting to thing of where to go from here – the idea that maybe meritocracy might actually be de-motivating and disengaging employees who would rather we stick to the “good old days” so similar to the current political debate, but how should employers deal with it?

    I wonder, was there a difference between how middle-age’d white males felt vs other demographics or was the resentment felt at all levels by everybody? At the managerial level, it would seem to me that middle-aged white-males have the most to lose from meritocracy as management has been predominantly their domain, I thus wonder if the threat of young managers is felt by others who don’t fall into this category.

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