August 15, 2011

UK: Can age diversity cause strife at work?

LONDON, England / Financial Times / Management / August 14, 2011

Age old bonds make the office tick
By Lucy Kellaway

Today, in San Antonio, I predict a riot. It won’t be young people breaking shop windows, as they did last week in Britain. It will be middle-aged management experts enraged at an attack on one of their holy cows.

Two academics are going to stand up at the American Academy of Management’s annual conference, attended by thousands of the most politically correct people in the world, and tell them that age diversity is bad for companies and bad for workers. The researchers* have canvassed 8,000 workers in 60 companies and found that organisations that employ the old as well as the young are unhappy places to work, with high staff turnover and low productivity, and are full of anger, fear and disgust.

Even though it is delightfully bracing to hear anyone say one word against diversity, the results strike me as odd. I can imagine that gender diversity could have such a negative effect; indeed on occasion working with men has brought on anger, fear and disgust in me. History tells us that ethnic diversity can cause strife too. But on age diversity, I just don’t see it.

The researchers suggest two reasons for their findings: people bond better with workers their own age, and a mixed age group causes “violations of career timetable norms”. In other words, old people get upset when younger ones are promoted over their heads, while young people get upset when an old person is sitting it out in a job, and preventing their advancement.

While this sounds reasonable enough, it doesn’t accord with my experience. When my “career timetable” is violated by someone 10 or 20 years younger, I harbour much less anger and disgust than when it’s violated by someone my own age – in which case it feels personal. And as for bonding, though it’s true that it is easier to bond with contemporaries, there’s a limit to how much bonding I want to do. So long as I have a couple of friends at work, I’m perfectly happy being civil with everyone else.

The idea of working exclusively with people my own age is loathsome to me: it would be like going back to school. One of the nicest things about work is that it’s the only place where you rub shoulders with people who aren’t your age and who aren’t members of your family. When I joined the workforce at 22, I was agog to find that I could talk to people as old as 30 as if they were equals. I also remember thinking that a few of the people in their 50s were gods at whose feet I was happy to sit.

As one gets older, these feet get fewer in number until you realise it is the other way round. By some extraordinary trick of time, you have become a god yourself – though in my case there seems regrettably scant demand from younger workers to sit at my feet. However I still find that having such youthful colleagues sitting on ordinary chairs round the office is a great pleasure. We may not be friends, but I think we find each other interesting in a slightly alien sort of way.

If this were all, I would be inclined to reject the research altogether. However, the study contains a qualification that makes perfect sense. It says that having old and young people together need not cause everyone to feel bad: it only does so in a workplace where people are encouraged to show emotion. In companies where emotions are suppressed, people of different generations seem to get along much better.

And this, surely is the answer to everything: the problem isn’t age, it’s emotion.

The biggest difference between the young and old at work is that the young have been raised on an unvaried diet of management psychobabble that says it’s great to let your hair down at work. They have been taught that emotions should be vented and that way lies self-fulfilment and creativity.

We older workers were taught otherwise: creativity comes through hard work, and self-fulfilment be damned. We know that work is for being professional, and that means keeping your hair pinned up at all times.

This research offers thrilling proof that we oldies were right – emotional suppression is good for companies and good for workers.

So before going on the rampage in San Antonio today, the management faithful should pin their hair up and consider a sadly neglected management truth: if we leave our emotions at home, we can all work together quite happily. We can have diversity or we have emotional incontinence, but we can’t have both.

* ‘When and why age diversity matters for organizations’, by Florian Kunze and Jochen Menges

Lucy Kellaway is an Associate Editor and management columnist of the FT. For the past 15 years her weekly Monday column has poked fun at management fads and jargon and celebrated the ups and downs of office life.

In her 25 years at the FT, Lucy has been energy correspondent, Brussels correspondent, a Lex writer, and an interviewer of business people and celebrities for the Lunch with the FT series and the FT Weekend. Prizes include Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards 2006, Industrial Society WorkWord Award (twice), Best Commentator, Business Journalist of the Year Awards 2007 and the Wincott Young Financial Journalist Award. Her first book, Sense and Nonsense in the Office, was published by FT Prentice Hall in 1999. Martin Lukes: Who Moved My BlackBerry(TM) (2005) and In Office Hours (2010) were published by Penguin.

Born in London in 1959, Lucy graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. 


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