In Germany mature workers are answering to young supervisors
Posted by hkarner - 16. Dezember 2016
Source: The Economist
A shortage of skilled labour means managers are being promoted far earlier
Who’s the daddy?
“IF THEY resented me they didn’t talk to me about it,” says a young German manager at a media firm in Frankfurt. Still, he says it was noticeable that when a subordinate 20 years older than him thanked him for buying lunch he had to swallow twice before adding the word “boss”.
Older workers sometimes begrudge being managed by a callow colleague. Precocious youngsters, too, can feel awkward about bossing their elders around. But in Germany a shortage of skilled workers means that such situations are becoming ever more common.
The country’s population is projected to shrink. Among rich-world countries, only in six nations including Japan and Greece are populations expected to decrease faster. As more Germans retire, fewer youngsters are entering the workforce to replace them. As a share of the working population the number of 15-to-24-year-olds has fallen by ten percentage points since the 1980s, says the German Federal Employment Agency. Firms competing to retain young talent are tempted to promote them earlier as a result. A paper by professors at the University of Cambridge and WHU, a German business school, to be published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, suggests this could be a problem.
As in many countries, German workplaces are legally obliged to overlook age when deciding whom to promote. Yet according to Jochen Menges, one of the authors, when a whippersnapper leapfrogs a more experienced worker it can leave the latter with feelings of “anger, fear and disgust”. People tend to judge their own standing by the success of their peers, and to see failure in being bossed about by someone younger. The relationship between feelings of angst and the age of the boss is linear, according to Mr Menges. A manager who is younger by one year is somewhat unsettling; a gap of 20 years is far more demoralising.
All of this may be affecting the bottom line. In a study of 61 German firms the researchers found that for every two-year increase in the age between subordinates and supervisors, a basket of performance measures declines by 5% (after taking into account other variables such as company size and the industry involved). That is not because older managers are better at their jobs: the study found that it was not the absolute age of the supervisor that mattered, only the age gap.
German firms certainly should not revert to a system in which age equates to rank, reckons Gerhard Rübling, labour director of TRUMPF, a midsized engineering outfit; meritocracy must prevail. But young people need to be sensitive about managing upwards. And older workers should be encouraged to see the bright side of learning new skills from tech-savvy up-and-comers. Daimler, a big German car firm, says it promotes age-mixed teams, so that knowledge can be transferred between generations. It also supports young managers by asking retired employees to provide temporary support. After all, you are never too old to learn. Or too young to manage.