Misconceptions and Realities: The Working Relationships of Older Workers and Younger Managers

By Tonks, Graeme; Dickenson, Katie et al. | Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Misconceptions and Realities: The Working Relationships of Older Workers and Younger Managers


Tonks, Graeme, Dickenson, Katie, Nelson, Lindsay, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management


As Australia's workforce ages, the incidence of younger managers supervising the work of older employees is increasing. However, research into issues arising from this phenomenon is in its infancy. This study investigates the perceptions of younger managers and older workers regarding their interactions. Results suggest that certain factors, including aspects of stereotyping and attitudes are salient to these relationships. By revealing such perceptions and differences between the cohorts, a better understanding of intergenerational differences and their effects on working relationships can be achieved. This, in turn, provides a framework upon which human resource management (HRM) might develop policies and procedures to manage emergent issues. Using data from 36 informants, this inquiry discovered that younger managers and older workers hold widely divergent perceptions of their interactions in the workplace, and many elements of these interactions affect working relationships in both a negative and positive manner. The implications of these findings are considered, and avenues by which intergenerational issues might be addressed by HRM are explored.

Keywords Ageing workforce, intergenerational workforce, leader-member exchange, older workers, social identity theory, young managers, workplace diversity

INTRODUCTION

Like most developed countries, Australia's population is ageing due to increased longevity and proportionately lower birth rates (Henry 2004, Kanfer & Akerman 2004). While the effects of the ageing population will have an impact on society in general (Sahari 2006), organisations will also be affected (Arnwine 1990, Bridgers & Johnson 2005) and will increasingly rely on human resource management (HRM) for solutions to manage the employment relationship, particularly in intergenerational workplaces where age stereotyping emerges. The context of the present study is, therefore, age differences between managers and workers and the consequential role of HRM where younger managers are required to direct older workers. Previous studies, such as Chui, Chan, Snape and Redman (2001), highlight age stereotyping and discrimination, but do not directly tackle the issue of younger managers and older workers.

Research suggests that various benefits accrue to organisations which incorporate a mix of generations. Older workers offer occupational stability, quality work processes and outputs, and organisational loyalty, compared to younger workers (Magd 2003, Hill 2004). The advantages of younger workers include flexibility, the ability to learn new skills, willingness to change, technological skills and faster training (Hill 2004, Guest & Shacklock 2005). Workplace diversity concerns heterogeneity in organisations (Bhawuk, Podsiadlowski, Graf & Triandis 2002), in which people in organisations are as demographically and socially dissimilar as the general population (Baron & Kreps 1999). However, while workplaces today generally encourage diversity, age prejudice remains deeply entrenched, despite almost universal recognition that valuing all human qualities, including age, is a key plank in maximising individual and organisational performance (Ross & Schneider 1992, Blytheway 1995, Kramar 2002, Burchett 2005, Alker 2006).

One of the outcomes of the ageing workforce, which organisations have largely ignored, is the nature and quality of workplace relationships as the incidence of younger managers supervising older employees increases (Chiu, et al. 2001, Pelletier 2005). Whereas Chui, et al. (2001) recognise the negative part played by stereotypes in attitudes towards older workers, Pelletier (2005) deals with the issue as a difference between generations, and in a short article gives several tips on how younger managers may gain the respect of older workers. Although possibly useful, this does little to analyse the underlying problems. Chui, et al. (2001: 653) examine the matter of stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes, giving some hint of the central problem when they state, "lt seems that closer age proximity leads to a more favourable and perhaps more sympathetic assessment of older workers, providing support for the ingroup bias hypothesis. …

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