Older Workers, Younger Bosses: It’s Inevitable, but is It Regrettable?

Posted Wednesday, January 11th, 2012| Comments (18) rule

Tay K. McNamara, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.8971
Email: mcnamatd@bc.edu

In most workplaces, long-established norms hold that older workers manage younger workers. As the workforce becomes increasingly multigenerational, it’s important to ask if violating these norms is disruptive to morale and productivity.

Older workers don’t like working for younger bosses. Right?

The answer seems to be yes and no.

Some previous studies — as described in an article by Mary Hair Collins, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., and Tonette S. Rocco that was published in Human Resource Development Quarterly in 2009 — have found tension in the attitudes of older workers towards younger supervisors.

Other research, however, suggests that the relationships older workers have with their supervisors are not determined by whether the boss is younger or the same age. Moreover, data from a 2008 survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute — a nonprofit research organization based in New York City — found that employees of all ages who reported to younger supervisors generally viewed their supervisors as sources of support. Of those 50 and older, 90 percent said that their supervisors helped them solve problems at work. (The figure for employees younger than 50 was 86 percent.) Why do some studies show that younger supervisors are a workforce problem and other studies show they aren’t? A recent analysis of data collected in 2007 by Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work provides insight.

The Center’s Age & Generations study asked more than 2000 employees a host of demographic questions, work-related questions, and questions about how supportive they considered their supervisors to be. These employees were also asked if they saw their supervisors as about the same age (49 percent), at least 10 years older (33 percent), or at least 10 years younger (12 percent). About 6 percent of the workers surveyed said they really had no idea.

Generally, workers who described their supervisors as younger than them viewed their supervisors as less supportive as compared to workers who described their supervisors as older than them. However, workers whose responses suggested less positive assessments of their own competence, self-worth, and worthiness (very low “core self-evaluations,” as described in a 2006 article by Timothy A. Judge, Amir Erez, Joyce E. Bono, and Carl J. Thoresen) perceived older supervisors as more supportive than supervisors who were younger or even the same age.

Younger supervisors really may be a problem for workers who are feeling insecure already, but these workers are usually a small minority. Core self-evaluations are a stable personality trait: it doesn’t change much over time. However, might other sources of insecurity — like downsizing — trigger a preference for an older supervisor that’s more widespread in a workforce than it would be otherwise? The atmosphere within a company and in the economy as a whole could have a lot to do with whether, at any moment in time, older workers view their younger supervisors as threatening, undeserving, and unsupportive. The inconsistency of research findings on the level of comfort older workers feel with younger supervisors may be due in part to today’s tenuous economic circumstances, when more people feel less secure.

18 responses to “Older Workers, Younger Bosses: It’s Inevitable, but is It Regrettable?”

  1. Regina Vaughn says:

    Good research and a good topic to discuss. I am 61 and the problem today is the nasty, mean spirited folks of any age. I was offered an incentive package and thank God I took it because 3 days later my team was laid off. That is another problem in the workforce today..you are expected to do three different jobs.
    I will have less money but I am at peace and have no stress. I can get to exercise class and eat properly. Since I know the realities of us Baby Boomers, I plan to return to work for 1-2 days per week….to pay for health care which is $700 per month.
    All the best on your future endeavors.
    Regina Vaughn 215.878.5418

  2. Jennifer Rosenbaum says:

    This is a great topic and is very timely.

    I found it interesting that core self-evaluations and other components that relate to the worker seem to be the influencing factors. On the face of it, I would have thought that perceptions about a younger supervisor’s experience, expertise, and perhaps, even a younger supervisor’s views/perceptions of older workers would be important factors, too.

  3. Gert Kriel says:

    I find that generally speaking the younger generation supervisors are better qualified and specifically more IT literate, which many a job requires today. Older people generally feel they have the experience and have done the work succesfully over a period of time and that should balance out the lack of formal qualifications. Management today no longer just goes about plan, lead, organize and control, it has become highly fragmented and fast paced so it really takes wisdom from the young generation to fully engage their employees…the older ones as well. Should both sides however choose to listen, the synergies between old and young can be very rewarding to both.

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  5. Tay K. McNamara says:

    Jennifer— I too found it surprising how many variables were NOT significantly related to perceptions of supervisor support (e.g., job tenure, work group size, health, wage rate). Some of the variables you’ve mentioned, such as supervisor behavior and attitudes, were not available in the data set, but would be interesting to investigate. Regarding the importance of worker characteristics such as core self-evaluations, I suppose part of it is simply that our perceptions of other people often say just as much (and sometimes more) about us as they do about them.

    Gert— We could not do in-depth analysis by industry due to the modest numbers of workers within each industry represented in the study. (The Age & Generations study spanned 6 industry sectors, including: higher education; health care; retail; insurance and financial services; professional, scientific, and technical services; and pharmaceuticals). However, related to your point about IT skills and qualifications, I would wonder if the dynamics of relative supervisor-worker age might differ in specific industries, based on what skill sets were most needed. Perhaps industries characterized by more rapid technological change might be more prone to perceptions (whether true or not for any particular person) that older supervisors don’t have the appropriate skills.

  6. I agree with Tay K. McNamara!

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