Increasingly employers are looking to fill their ranks with ‘digital natives’, which usually translates to people younger than you. But how do you work for someone half your age?
Millennials (Gen Y) and Post-Millennials (Gen Z) now make up 40 per cent of the workforce. So, if you are over 36 years of age you should probably get used to the idea you will one day be working for someone young enough to be your son or daughter. How you deal with that reality can make a big difference to how happy you are at work and your chances of career progression.
Increasingly employers are looking to fill their ranks with ‘digital natives’ which usually translates to people younger than you. At the same time older workers are staying in their jobs for longer or rejoining the workforce after ‘retirement.’ And while every workforce has always been a mix of the old and the young and everyone in between, for many workplaces how that mix is distributed throughout the organisation has been changing.
In a traditional organisational hierarchy a significant part of the reason you were promoted was because of your length of service. This meant that older people tended to be more senior and young people tended to be lower in the chain of command. Today this structure still very much persists in government organisations such as the Public Service, Law Enforcement, the military, Health and Education. But sheer weight of numbers (of younger workers) and a trend towards less structured workplaces has meant that May-December working relationships between a Boss and their direrct reports is more and more likely particularly in industries where social media capability is a requirement.
Naturally psychologists have a term for this. It’s called ‘status incongruence’ and it means a situation where a person’s status is not what you would expect, in this case, because of their age.
While the phenomena has been discussed by sociologists since the 1950s, it’s only recently that studies on the impacts for organisations have started to appear. One such study was recently performed by researchers from Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas in Dallas. One of the lead researchers, associate professor Orlando Richard told The New York Times the research showed “older workers are not as responsive to [a] younger boss, because they feel he or she shouldn’t be in that position,” and, “[they] are less committed to the company. They’re not as engaged in the job. If they’re close to retirement, they may not leave, but they may not work as hard.”
The study also found that organisations with older workers reporting to younger workers needed to adapt their leadership style to take account of that. Transformational Leadership is popular among the types of firms likely to experience status incongruence. But the research suggests this style of leadership in particular is likely to be less successful.
Transformational leadership requires a leader to work with teams to identify needed change, create a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and execute the change in tandem with committed members of a group. In order for this to work, the members of the team have to believe in the credentials and ability of the leader. While that is not impossible where the leader is significantly younger than a team member, it is something that needs to be taken into account in how a leader works with the team. They will have to work harder to establish their credentials, so that workers can see past their relative youth and develop faith in the leader’s abilities.
It is also something that the organization has to bear in mind when selecting a younger person to lead a team. If that person is not capable of convincing the team that they have the credentials to be there then status incongruence is likely to result in a team which significantly underperforms its ability.
For their part, older workers should focus on not being guilty of reverse ageism. They need to recognise that age, like gender and race does not define a person’s ability. They should especially resist the urge to give the leader tips on how they would do the job. They should strongly resist the urge to say “having done this for years …” and leading with ‘in my day’ is not a good plan no matter who your boss is, but it is definitely a land-mine with a younger leader.
Instead they should use their experience to help their younger boss in a non-threatening way. Making yourself and your experience valuable is likely to be a pathway to doing better in any company but this is likely to be especially the case in an organisation that values skills over age.