Older and Wiser? How Management Style Varies with Age

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In recent years, one of the most profound changes in the workplace has been the increase in age diversity.  Large organizations have employees from as many as five generations.  Low inflation, low interest rates, and low savings rates have resulted in longer working lives, with many people working into their 70s and beyond.  Millions of people are also living longer than ever — with growing numbers in developed countries expected to reach their 100th birthday.

Age diversity, like other forms of diversity, brings significant benefits to the organizations that embrace it.  But it also creates challenges.  Different generations have their own expectations and demands and working relationships can become strained. It’s not always easy to report to someone who is significantly older or younger than you are.  Prejudice and stereotyping can creep in, as well, when the differences aren’t properly managed.

The starting point for managing age diversity effectively is to develop a basic understanding of cross-age differences in working and management styles.  How do these styles vary with age?  Many researchers have addressed aspects of this question, but the findings are fragmented, and the observed differences are often small.  Books and articles exploring intergenerational differences claim that members of the millennial generation (individuals born between 1981 and 1996) are more socially conscious and less loyal to their employers than are members of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980).  But there is very little in the academic literature to support this generational view, either theoretically or empirically.  

Why Does Age Matter?

Why would we expect management style to vary by age?  The academic literature on life span development and organizational demography shows that several effects are operating at the same time.

For more insight, the authors surveyed more than 10,000 managers ages 21 to 70 across multiple industry sectors in an effort to learn about their preferred styles of working.  By asking them to identify the techniques and tools they consider most important in several areas of management, they discovered significant differences across ages that have eluded...

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