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Age norms: are these still alive and kicking in organizations?

by on November 18, 2015

It seems that perhaps they are, with the usual caveat about the methodology of conducting surveys. The OnRec website reports here a survey in which 34% of UK workers say that they would feel ‘uncomfortable, patronized, depressed or as though they were underachieving if they were managed by someone younger than them‘.  The survey was apparently about good and bad traits in managers and so this age-related observation is not unpacked further in the article. Nor can I track down any more information about the report which was carried out by recruitment agency Spring Personnel.

But there is quite a substantial academic literature on ‘age norms’ which is how this type of observation is generally described. Specifically here the age norm relates to the relational demography of the supervisor relationship at work. The survey suggests discomfort with the idea of being managed by someone younger than oneself on the basis that somehow this breaches work conventions and age norms. In fact, this scenario is referred to in the literature as the ‘reverse Pygmalion effect‘ and one that is becoming more common in light of demographic changes in the workplace.

In this 2009 paper in the Human Resource Development Quarterly journal, Collins and colleagues report that older workers expect less from their younger supervisors than do younger workers, and older workers rate their younger supervisors’ leadership behaviour lower than younger workers rate their younger supervisors.

One hopes that, over the last few years, this attitude might have changed as workers of all ages come to realise that perhaps age is not a useful or reliable proxy for measuring or assessing their own or other’s workplace behaviours.

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