Youth Not Just for the Young

Employees younger than 25 years old reported feeling slightly older than they actually were, and those older than 25 reported feeling four years younger, on average.
Youth Not Just for the Young
Many assume that it’s the youngest workers in an organization who supply the most energy and drive innovation. But contributions of the young at heart are no less important, according to a paper that explores the effect of subjective age—or how old someone feels—on organizational performance. Its co-authors include Florian Kunze, chair of organizational studies at the University of Konstanz in Germany; Anneloes Raes, assistant professor of managing people in organizations at IESE Business School in Barcelona; and Heike Bruke, director of the Institute for Leadership and Human Resources Management at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Kunze, Raes, and Bruke surveyed 15,164 employees from 107 German companies, whose industries spanned production, wholesale, retail, service, and finance. Employees, including those from human resources and the C-suite, answered questions about HR practices and company performance, as well as those about their subjective ages.

Employees younger than 25 years old reported feeling slightly older than they actually were, while those older than 25 reported feeling four years younger, on average. The co-authors reference previous studies that show that culture also can make a big difference in workers’ subjective age. In the U.K., older workers have reported feeling nearly ten years younger than their chronological age; those in China, just ten months.

Other studies suggest that younger workers think more about achieving long-term goals and promotion, an attitude that fuels more dynamic work environments. By contrast, older workers are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, a mindset not known for innovation. But employees who perceive themselves to be younger are often more flexible and willing to learn and embrace innovations than their curmudgeonly counterparts. They also are more focused on long-term growth in ways that can lead to stronger performance for the organization.

These findings are important to companies in fast-changing industries that need to maintain dynamic work environments, say the co-authors. They recommend two strategies for leaders who wish to lower the average subjective age of their workforces. First, offer employees more opportunities for meaningful work. And, second, avoid HR policies based on age alone, such as reserving certain training opportunities for younger workers only, which reinforce age-based stereotypes.

“It Matters How Old You Feel: Antecedents and Performance Consequences of Average Relative Subjective Age in Organizations” was published online March 23 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.