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Mind the (‘age-inverse’) gap in the workplace

The trend toward older workers being supervised by younger people can lead to negative emotions such as ‘anger, fear and disgust’ that harm company performance, finds new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

generation metaphor in business dress

Mind the (age) gap when it comes to younger people supervising older workers.

Dr Jochen Menges

Dr Jochen Menges

A new study finds that the age gap between older workers and younger supervisors is linked to the frequency of emotions such as “anger, fear and disgust” among employees, and that more frequent negative emotions of this type are associated with lower company performance in areas such as financial results, growth, efficiency, and return on assets.

This is in part due to “emotion contagion” as the negative feelings evoked by such an age gap tend to spread throughout an organisation, says the study by academics in Britain and Germany published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The “age-inverse” supervisory relationships are part of a changing pattern of the modern workplace. Companies are retaining older employees longer due to demographic changes and the abandonment of early retirement schemes, as firms also have shifted from seniority to merit-based promotion systems. As a result, increasing numbers of workers are being supervised by younger people.

Negative emotions of older subordinates are triggered by “status incongruence” and a “violation of career norms” which get more painful as the age gap widens. This can harm organisational performance by hindering collaboration, depressing motivation and harming productivity.

The study found, however, that the negative effect on company performance occurs only if subordinates express their feelings toward the supervisor; the effect is “neutralised” if emotions are suppressed.

“Age differences between supervisors and older subordinates clearly matter,” says study co-author Dr Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. “We found that such age gaps can harm company performance by negatively influencing employee emotions. If the age gap is small, employees throughout a company are less likely to experience such negative emotions.”

The study – entitled “Younger supervisors, older subordinates: an organisational-level study of age differences, emotions, and performance” – is co-authored by Professor Florian Kunze, Chair of Organisational Studies at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

“As far as we know, this is the first study to link negative emotions of older subordinates to performance at the organisational level,” Menges says. “The findings have clear practical implications for companies in managing these relationships.”

The study is based on survey responses by 7,802 employees at 61 companies in Germany, representing a wide range of industries including services, manufacturing and finance, along with human resources directors and 175 top managers at the companies – who rated their firm’s performance in key operational and organisational performance measures relative to main competitors within the same industry in the same area.

The study is based on survey responses by 7,802 employees at 61 companies in Germany, representing a wide range of industries including services, manufacturing and finance, along with human resources directors and 175 top managers at the companies – who rated their firm’s performance in key operational and organisational performance measures relative to main competitors within the same industry in the same area.

“Our findings put to question contemporary promotion practices that disregard age as a criterion for placing a person into a supervisory role,” the study says.

While the researchers do not question the effectiveness of merit-based promotion, “we do have evidence for some of the repercussions that companies are likely to face when moving away from traditional age structures and abandoning seniority-based promotion systems.” Companies should therefore think carefully about how to avoid such pitfalls, including less emphasis on “career timetables” and “hierarchical thinking” so employees would respond less emotionally to age differences.

The study’s findings on emotion suppression were complex and nuanced. Whereas some previous studies found emotion suppression at the individual level to be a demanding and socially costly strategy, “we show that emotion suppression can be an effective strategy in circumstances that involve emotionally taxing social interactions.”

“This finding should not be taken to imply that organisations should promote cultures of emotional suppression,” the study says. Instead, companies should “approach the challenges of age-inverse supervisory relationships in ways that benefit both the company at the organisational level and the employees at the individual level, rather than one or the other.”

Germany was a good country to conduct such a study on the consequences of demographic change in the workplace because it has one of the world’s highest median ages (estimated at 46.8 in 2016). The age structure in German companies is therefore a potential projection for other industrialised countries such as the United States where the population is aging rapidly but has not reached Germany’s median age level.