As companies have switched from a seniority system to a meritocracy system, people who are better suited for management roles have landed in the senior roles. This is a great thing for business, but a recent study in Germany found a downside: Older workers don't like working for younger managers.
Researchers Florian Kunze and Jochen Menges looked at nearly 8000 employees at 61 different German companies. Their key finding was that in cases where there was a large age gap between younger managers and older workers, the employee "tended to report more negative emotions, such as anger or fear."
There's no mystery as to why an older worker might resent a younger manager. After all, we tend to believe that our careers should be an ever-upward progression. (And certainly, when we interview for jobs, hiring managers want to see evidence of such a climb.) So, when your boss is half your age, it can feel like not only a slap in the face, but a sign that you've gone as far as you're going, as the younger crowd is now taking over the upward climb
Kunze and Menges also found that the more negative emotions at a firm are, the worse the business performed. While age gaps are only one thing leading to negativity, they certainly didn't help.
Does this mean you should revert to a seniority system? Incidentally, in the US, there's no law prohibiting discrimination against people under 40, only against people over 40. Absolutely not. First, consider the following things:
This study is German.
Never, ever, underestimate the impact of culture and tradition. German business customs differ from US business customs and we cannot expect to find the same impact in every culture.
Identify the problem area in your business.
Is it the Baby Boomers and Gen-xers who are crabby and angry for no good reason, or is it that the Millennial managers don't know what they are doing? Is there animosity going one way or both? Don't assume that the problem lies with one group. It may be going both ways.
Make sure you're making the right hiring decisions.
You can't legally not hire someone because that person is "too old" (as long as the person is over 40). And no, you can't cover your legal behind by replacing a 55-year-old with a 45-year-old and say "they are both in a protected class." And even though the law doesn't prohibit discrimination against 25-year-olds, don't do that either. Carefully consider the things you need in a manager and look for the right person.
Don't enforce strict upward movement in hiring.
We expect that we'll go upward in our careers as we age. But, that certainly doesn't need to be a requirement. Lateral moves can be beneficial for companies and individuals. Some people aren't well suited for management roles--don't limit the growth of a great individual contributor just because that person wouldn't be good at managing others.
Since the resentment most likely comes not from chronological age but the feeling of not being successful, redefining success can conquer this issue.
Don't make assumptions about age when hiring.
A younger employee isn't going to be better at your cool tech things than an older employee just because he's grown up with tech. An older employee isn't going to always bring the maturity that you're looking for. Look for the best.
If you'd like to read the complete study, you can find it here: Younger supervisors, older subordinates: An organizational-level study of age differences, emotions, and performance