THE BLOG
01/19/2012 06:29 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

No One Wants a Younger Boss... Or Do They?

In most workplaces, long-established norms hold that older workers manage younger workers. As the workforce becomes increasingly multigenerational, it's important to ask if violating these norms is disruptive to morale and productivity.

Older workers don't like working for younger bosses. Right?

The answer seems to be yes and no.

Some previous studies -- as described in an article by Mary Hair Collins, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., and Tonette S. Rocco that was published in Human Resource Development Quarterly in 2009 -- have found tension in the attitudes of older workers towards younger supervisors.

Other research, however, suggests that the relationships older workers have with their supervisors are not determined by whether the boss is younger or the same age. Moreover, data from a 2008 survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute -- a nonprofit research organization based in New York City -- found that employees of all ages who reported to younger supervisors generally viewed their supervisors as sources of support. Of those 50 and older, 90 percent said that their supervisors helped them solve problems at work. (The figure for employees younger than 50 was 86 percent.) Why do some studies show that younger supervisors are a workforce problem and other studies show they aren't? A recent analysis of data collected in 2007 by Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging & Work provides insight.

The Center's Age & Generations study asked more than 2000 employees a host of demographic questions, work-related questions, and questions about how supportive they considered their supervisors to be. These employees were also asked if they saw their supervisors as about the same age (49 percent), at least 10 years older (33 percent), or at least 10 years younger (12 percent). About 6 percent of the workers surveyed said they really had no idea.

Generally, workers who described their supervisors as younger than them viewed their supervisors as less supportive as compared to workers who described their supervisors as older than them. However, workers whose responses suggested less positive assessments of their own competence, self-worth, and worthiness (very low "core self-evaluations," as described in a 2006 article by Timothy A. Judge, Amir Erez, Joyce E. Bono, and Carl J. Thoresen) perceived older supervisors as more supportive than supervisors who were younger or even the same age.

Younger supervisors really may be a problem for workers who are feeling insecure already, but these workers are usually a small minority. Core self-evaluations are a stable personality trait: It doesn't change much over time. However, might other sources of insecurity -- like downsizing -- trigger a preference for an older supervisor that's more widespread in a workforce than it would be otherwise? The atmosphere within a company and in the economy as a whole could have a lot to do with whether, at any moment in time, older workers view their younger supervisors as threatening, undeserving, and unsupportive. The inconsistency of research findings on the level of comfort older workers feel with younger supervisors may be due in part to today's tenuous economic circumstances, when more people feel less secure.