Older and Wiser? How Management Style Varies With Age

While younger managers prefer narrower, more technical approaches, older ones tend to work through others and focus on the big picture.

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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.1

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.2

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 (see “Why Does Age Matter?”), but the findings are fragmented and the observed differences are often small.3 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.4



1. L. Gratton and A. Scott, “The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives,” MIT Sloan Management Review 58, no. 3 (spring 2017): 63-70; D. Wagner, “Managing an Age-Diverse Work Force,” MIT Sloan Management Review 48, no. 4 (summer 2007): 9; N.S. Bell and M. Narz, “Meeting the Challenges of Age Diversity in the Workplace,” The CPA Journal 77, no. 2 (February 2007): 56-59; and P.A. Gordon, “Age Diversity in the Workplace,” in Diversity and Inclusion in the Global Workplace, eds. C.T.E. de Aquino and R.W. Robertson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 31-47.

2. T.D. Nelson, ed., Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004); R.A. Posthuma and M.A. Campion, “Age Stereotypes in the Workplace: Common Stereotypes, Moderators, and Future Research Directions,” Journal of Management 35, no. 1 (February 2009): 158-188; and F. Kunze, S.A. Boehm, and H. Bruch, “Age Diversity, Age Discrimination Climate and Performance Consequences — A Cross Organizational Study,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 32, no. 2 (February 2011): 264-290.

3. Consider, for example, Posthuma and Campion, “Age Stereotypes”; and A. Joshi, J.C. Dencker, G. Franz, et al., “Unpacking Generational Identities in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review 35, no. 3 (July 2010): 392-414.

4. For example, see K.L. Zabel, B.B.J. Biermeier-Hanson, B.B. Baltes, et al., “Generational Differences in Work Ethic: Fact or Fiction?” Journal of Business and Psychology 32, no. 3 (June 2017): 301-315. Because of the methodological challenges in this field, we will resist making strong inferences about why we see differences in management style by age. Instead, we will stick with evidence based on our own research and discuss some ways our insights can be used to manage age diversity more effectively.

5. We use younger and older throughout as a shorthand way to describe the differences by age. In reality, as our graphic shows, the differences are fairly gradual, with no obvious cutoff points.

6. C.A. Martin and B. Tulgan, Managing Generation Y: Global Citizens Born in the Late Seventies and Early Eighties (Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2001).

7. Nelson, ed., Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice.

8. This view is based on studies such as H. Fayol, General and Industrial Management (London: Pitman, 1967); L. Gulick and L. Urwick, eds., Papers on the Science of Administration (New York: Institute of Public Administration, 1937); P.F. Drucker, Management, 4th edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); H. Mintzberg, Managing (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009); and J. Birkinshaw, Reinventing Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

9. J. Birkinshaw, Becoming a Better Boss (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013) and J. Manktelow and J. Birkinshaw, Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Become a Better Boss (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018).

10. In our research, we defined “techniques” as applications of abilities or skills. For example, “scenario planning” is a technique, and “making sense of future business trends” is the accompanying skill or ability.

11. E. Jaques, Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2017, Kindle edition).

12. Note that the statistical analysis shows these differences are influenced by age and also by hierarchical seniority to a significant degree. This is as one would expect: Learning how to manage others becomes more acute the more senior someone is in his or her organization.

13. The techniques for decision-making were least susceptible to age differences across the entire study, and hierarchical seniority had a similar overall effect to age in this “task focus” category.

14. The statistical analysis shows the age effect is stronger when it comes to understanding yourself better and managing yourself and your career over time. Techniques for coping with change and personal time management vary less across age categories, and where they are different, the effect is linked more to hierarchical seniority than to age itself.

15. Posthuma and Campion, “Age Stereotypes”; and J. Zenger and J. Folkman, “What Younger Managers Should Know About How They’re Perceived,” Harvard Business Review, Sept. 29, 2015, https://hbr.org.

i. P.B. Baltes, “Theoretical Propositions of Life-Span Developmental Psychology: On the Dynamics Between Growth and Decline,” Developmental Psychology 23, no. 5 (September 1987): 611-626; and C.W. Rudolph, R.S. Rauvola, and H. Zacher, “Leadership and Generations at Work: A Critical Review,” The Leadership Quarterly 29, no. 1 (September 2017): 44-57.

ii. B.S. Lawrence, “New Wrinkles in the Theory of Age: Demography, Norms, and Performance Ratings,” Academy of Management Journal 31, no. 2 (June 1988): 309-337; and T.R. Zenger and B.S. Lawrence, “Organizational Demography: The Differential Effects of Age and Tenure Distributions on Technical Communication,” Academy of Management Journal 32, no. 2 (June 1989): 353-376.

iii. F. Walter and S. Scheibe, “A Literature Review and Emotion-Based Model of Age and Leadership: New Directions for the Trait Approach,” The Leadership Quarterly 24, no. 6 (December 2013): 882-901.

iv. K. Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations,” Psychoanalytic Review 57, no. 3 (1970): 378-404; and R. Zemke, C. Raines, and B. Filipczak, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace (New York: Amacom, 1999).

v. Many studies consider the confounding effects of age and seniority. For example, see Posthuma and Campion, “Age Stereotypes”; and A. Korac-Kakabadse, N. Kakabadse, and A. Myers, “Demographics and Leadership Philosophy: Exploring Gender Differences,” Journal of Management Development 17, no. 5 (1998): 351-388.

vi. D.J. Levinson, The Seasons of a Man’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978); and W.G. Bennis, “The Seven Ages of the Leader,” Harvard Business Review 82, no. 1 (January 2004): 46-53.

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Comment (1)
Older managers (who have actual successful experience) are more likely to be self-aware and, therefore, better suited to mentoring and leading teams. Competitive self-importance and the tendency to make a fool of yourself due to limited insight are greatly reduced. As long as the manager allows his team and SME's to do their job and make contributions, while not trying to take credit, distort reality, diminish his subordinates' skills, nor gloat about his own worth, he will hold a major advantage over junior managers.
Experience is always a value add if it is born from lessons learned and achievements accomplished. Unfortunately, many older managers are investing valuable energy into justifying their existence by competing with their often better-educated and skilled employees, resorting to office politics to create and spread a false narrative of the unimportance of their work product, all in a desperate attempt to pretend they are entitled to the "big job." They actually do not progress and quickly create an environment in which the targeted employees begin to focus on, and assess, the incompetence of the manager, who otherwise could have remained above the fray.