The Dinosaur Fallacy: 6 Stereotypes of Older Executives (and Why They’re Wrong)

“You think I respect your opinion when your hairline looks that disrespectful?” This is the battle cry of ‘OK boomer’— a movement by Generation Zers and young millennials against the older generation. It attacks perceived boomer resistance to tech, boomer climate change denial, boomer marginalization of minority groups, and general boomer cynicism about the values of Gen Z and young millennials.

The first 'OK boomer' video hit YouTube in 2019 and quickly accumulated over 12 million views. The term even entered parliamentary debating chambers when in November 2019, 25-year-old New Zealand Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick responded to older MPs who heckled her climate speech with a swift: “OK boomer’.  

In January 2020 it was cited in a US supreme court session as an example of ageism during a litigation case. Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether a young hiring employee saying “OK boomer” to an older candidate could be a legitimate factor in a discrimination claim. Lawyer Roman Martinez thought it could: “You know, using ethnic slurs or calling people ‘boomer’ or saying unflattering things about them in age when considering them for a position then yes, of course.” [1] 

Beyond boomers

Was the OK boomer message restricted to baby boomers? Some argued that it addressed any member of a pre-Gen Z cohort. People who could not only be stereotyped as digitally-illiterate climate deniers with outmoded values, but too old to learn or change. This also put Generations X and Y in the firing line. It would be easy to dismiss OK boomer as a mindless meme (despite its fifteen minutes of fame in court and parliament). This would be an error. Because its spirit runs deeper than social media or merchandising, and wider than baby boomers.  

Elizabeth Tippet is an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Law. She takes the OK boomer movement very seriously: “It doesn’t matter if the target isn’t even a boomer. Gen Xers were born around 1965 to 1979. That makes them older than 40 and covered by federal age discrimination law. Yes, I get that the comment is a retort to “unwoke” elders who cannot be reasoned with. The problem is that the phrase is intended as a put-down that is based, at least partly, on age. If you say it at work, you’re essentially saying, “You’re old and therefore irrelevant.” Lumping Gen Xers into a category with even older workers doesn’t make it better. Either way, you are commenting on their age.” [2]  

What’s in a generation?

A generation, or cohort, is “an identifiable group that shares birth years, age location, and significant life events at critical developmental stages.” This includes “shared historical or social life experiences whose effects are relatively stable over the course of their lives... A cohort develops a personality that influences a person’s feelings toward authority and organizations, what they desire from work, and how they plan to satisfy those desires.” [3]

One of the difficulties of discussing things in generation terms lies in defining boundaries, and the span of years covered by a generation. For example, if CFO Barbara was born on 31st December 1964, she falls into Generation X. Do her attitudes really differ from those of CEO Jane born the day before? What of executives born on the border of Generation X and Y (Millennials)? Enter the Xennials, a micro- or cross-over generation born between the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. Now aged 40 to 50, they make up a large proportion of the senior executive population. They also account for 70% of the respondents to a recent Amrop Study whose findings we’ll touch on in a moment. 

What is a stereotype? 

Stereotypes are “overgeneralized expectations and beliefs about the characteristics and traits of social outgroup members (Fiske 1998). Stereotypes represent negative, distorted, and usually inaccurate perceptions of individuals... and the inference that all members of that group hold or display these same characteristics.” Significantly, this can lead to bias in selection, promotion decisions and training. [4]

An executive problem

Fredy Hausammann is a member of Amrop’s Board Services Practice and Chair of Amrop’s Global Nomination and Governance Committee. He welcomes the focus on senior level diversity, and particularly gender diversity. However he argues that diversity of age and background is just as important — and an ongoing challenge. 

“Every week I see discrimination against candidates aged between 55 and 60; they fail to make shortlists. I cannot understand why a 50 year-old is preferred over a peer aged 55, 56 or 57. If some firms oblige you to retire at 62, many others encourage you to work up to 65. Most candidates in these age brackets are as fit as people five to ten years younger.” [5]  

Stereotypes — what the researchers found

In our daily interactions with clients and candidates, we encounter stereotyping on an all-too-frequent basis. To check whether our anecdotal evidence was backed up by serious investigators, we dived into several research papers that examined common age-related stereotypes. The authors either drew on their own studies, on academic literature, or conducted meta-analyses. 

Some stereotypes were identified by more than one author and there was some cross referencing between the papers. You can find all our sources in the Full Article (appendix).  

  • Older executives lack motivation 
  • Older executives are unwilling or unable to learn 
  • Older executives are closed to diversity 
  • Older executives are tech resistant 
  • Older executives are loyal traditionalists

We’d also like to propose a 6th stereotype:

  • Older executives don’t (really) care about sustainability or ethics 

Stereotypes — what our own study found

Several of the research papers we looked at presented evidence that undermined one or more stereotypes. In other words, they are indeed distorted perceptions.  

Age stereotyping is a widespread and sticky problem.  

It ranges from popular culture to workplace discrimination that can expose companies to legal risk, undermine talent management, and damage the prospects of senior executives. 

In our full article we question these six stereotypes (five identified by robust academic research). And we find that older executives are not, as the stereotyping suggests, unmotivated members of the organizational community who are no longer willing or able to learn. They are not all technically-illiterate. Nor are they largely loyal traditionalists who seek comfort in the single organization career model. And the assumption that they are generally uninterested in socio-environmental concerns is simply unfounded. 

Diversity of thought (and age) is like a catalyst: it creates thriving and innovative organizational cultures that benefit all generations — with a positive impact on performance. Manfred Kets de Vries recently warned that many of today’s most famous companies work in the opposite way: recruiting and functioning on the basis of ‘fit’ and tending towards group-think [6]. According to our research, senior executives are first in line to demand diversity of thought, and rightly so. 

The statistics don’t lie: the ageing demographic is set to occupy a growing proportion of the executive population. Furthermore, many of today’s seniors bring health and wealth to the table (in terms of experience and wisdom). These are precious resources indeed. Today’s organizations (and the next generation of leaders) will need to draw heavily on this well in the VUCA times ahead. 

From Stereotypes to Solutions 

If older executives are anything but dinosaurs, how can we make the best of what they have to offer?

Activate senior executive mentoring potential - a positive force in succession planning

Fredy Hausammann points out that succession planning is a major problem for many organizations. Not only is much younger talent unready for senior leadership, but organizations lack senior leaders. Organizations that embrace the older talent pool are well positioned to tackle the problem. Rather than viewing senior executives as rivals for younger executives, older colleagues should be cultivated as mentors who can support and build up successors. 

Michael North, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the NYU Stern School of Business, told The Conversation in 2017 that studies have found that older male allies were seen as particularly likeable. Those viewed as helping younger generations were rated more positively than middle-aged or younger partners who were doing the same thing. (He notes the case for older women is still being studied). 

Design clear and pragmatic hiring criteria - and keep them on the radar.

Eelco van Eijck, Managing Partner of Amrop in the Netherlands, is troubled by the fact that board members regularly put forward people they personally know for leadership positions. This also happens during advanced search processes conducted by the executive search firm that they have appointed. One solution is to design scorecards with the client, he says. Containing ten selection criteria, scorecards make a candidate shortlist fully transparent. At a glance, it becomes clear which of the three remaining candidates best qualifies. Peer pressure in companies shouldn’t be underestimated, van Eijck emphasizes. Only a competent headhunter can turn things round using evidence, discretion and diplomacy.[7]

In a study of age stereotypes in the workplace [8] researchers Eileen Toomey and Cort Rudolph confirm that it’s possible to reduce bias of age stereotypes if specific information is used during selection processes that is relevant to the role or qualities of the applicant and position. They also warn that perceptions of a ‘correct age’ of an applicant for a given role increases the effects of age stereotyping. If you are a hiring professional, you may systematically apply this kind of objective precision to hiring. However, the evidence suggests that too many organizations are not keeping their eye on the ball: age discrimination is, as we have seen, a proven and widespread problem. 

Keep an open mind - Never assume a colleague is stereotyping you

In their study, Toomey and Rudolf also raise the idea of metastereotyping. This means that members of one group (such as senior executives) automatically assume that members of another group (such as younger executives) are stereotyping them. When we do this we are actually projecting a stereotype on members of another group, (younger colleagues think that seniors like me are tech dinosaurs) – one that may well be misplaced.

Foster a culture of abundance - and improve collaboration between generations

In a 2013 study [9], Prof. Michael North raises “the potential for hostile ageism to brew among younger generations, if elders do not step aside and cede resources in the traditional manner (e.g., if they postpone retirement or reap disproportionate government benefits).” But in The Conversation [10], he reports that other studies have found answers to the problem. Firstly, tensions can be reduced by portraying an abundance of resources between generations. Secondly, de-emphasizing broad generational competition can improve face-to-face interactions. “With hope, older generations can be seen positively in the eyes of the young, so long as they come off as not getting in the way.” 

References

[1] Torres, E 2020, abc news online, Jan 15

[2] Tippet, EC 2019, ‘Why you shouldn’t say ‘OK boomer’ at work’, pbc News Hour, 28 November

[3] Wey Smola, K & Sutton, CD 2002, ‘Generational differences: revisiting generational work values for the new millennium’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23: 363-362

[4] Toomey, EC & Rudolph, CW 2015, ‘Age Stereotypes in the Workplace’, Encyclopedia of Geropsychology, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-080-3_30-1

[5] Hausammann, F 2021, ‘The Age of No Age’, Ethical Boardroom Magazine, Summer Edition 2021 and Amrop

[6]  Kets de Vries, M 2019, ‘Is Your Corporate Culture Cultish?’ Harvard Business Review, 10 May

[7] Van Eijck, E 2018, ‘Destination Boardroom Part 3: Mapping the Executive Search World’, Amrop

[8] Toomey, EC & Rudolph, CW 2015, ‘Age Stereotypes in the Workplace’, Encyclopedia of Geropsychology, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-080-3_30-1 

[9] North, MS & Fiske, T 2013, ‘A Prescriptive, Intergenerational-Tension Ageism Scale: Succession, Identity and Consumption (SIC)’, Psychol Assess, 25 (3); 705-713

[10] North, M 2027, ‘Young Workers Expect Their Older Colleagues to Get Out of the Way’, The Conversation

 

5 STEREOTYPES | EXTERNAL RESEARCH SOURCES

Finkelstein, LM, King, B, Voyles C 2015, ‘Age Metastereotyping and Cross-Age Workplace Interactions: A Meta View of Age Stereotypes at Work’, Work, Aging and Retirement, Vol. 1, No. 1, 26-40

Ng, TWH & Feldman DC 2012, ‘Evaluating Six Common Stereotypes About Older Workers with Meta-Analytical Data’, Personnel Psychology, 65(4), 821–858

Posthuma, RA & Campion, MA 2009, ‘Age Stereotypes in the Workplace: Common Stereotypes, Moderators, and Future Research Directions’, Journal of Management, Vol 35 No1: 158-188

Toomey, EC & Rudolph, CW 2015, ‘Age Stereotypes in the Workplace’, Encyclopedia of Geropsychology, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-080-3_30-1

Ulrick, JM, Hollensbe EG, Masterson SS, Lyons ST 2016, ‘Understanding and Managing Intergenerational Conflict: An Examination of Influences and Strategies’, Work, Aging and Retirement, Vol.3, No. 2: 166-185