Understanding cultural differences
Would you rather have a boss who was 30, or a boss who was 70? Age UK surveyed attitudes towards age and seniority across 28 European countries, the overwhelming preference was for the young boss. Workers in many other parts of the world may find this strange, as in their view, the 70-year-old would have more knowledge, more wisdom and more experience. But in many countries nowadays youth, not age, is revered.
Attitudes to age and seniority around the world are, of course, more complicated than this. Although it’s easy to paint a rosy stereotypical picture of contented older bosses in China dispensing their wisdom and elders in Africa enjoying the respect of their younger colleagues, ageism in the workplace does in fact exist in all cultures.
In Japan, for example, a high-ranking person in a company is by nature likely to be older, as they will have worked their way up over the years. This person will command respect. But an older person looking to switch careers is likely to experience ageism. While the ‘job for life’ scenario in Japan is less of a given nowadays, attitudes are still negatively entrenched towards an older person looking for a new employer at an advanced stage of their career.
When working in a cross-cultural environment, it is important to understand the context in which different cultures view age and seniority, even if these do seem like rather sweeping generalizations.
Failure to consider the hierarchy could mean disaster for a young manager catapulted into an African country to manage an older team, or social humiliation at a business dinner in China for the executive who hasn’t studied the etiquette.
Generally speaking, cultures with a high power distance, among them Arab, Asian and many African countries, value status and seniority, while those with a lower power distance, including Anglo-American cultures, Germany and Scandinavia, strive more for competence and a consultative style. Here, the age of a manager or decision maker is not seen as important.
In Confucian-orientated societies, seniority is the main way of gaining power. The people that hold the power make the decisions, which is why in China and Korea, decision making is likely to be in the hands of older managers. Confucianism teaches ‘filial piety’, respect for the elderly, and abandoning one’s older relatives is seen as deeply dishonorable. This sense of respect for older people translates to the workplace.
In Greece, too, old age is honored and celebrated. A worker in Greece will view an older manager as experienced, and will show them more respect than a worker in Britain might. In fact, in a survey published by Age UK, in Greece, ‘old age’ is perceived to begin at 68, while in Britain, it’s 59.
In India, although greater social mobility means that many old people have no nearby family members to care for them, the general cultural trait is to respect the elderly and indeed, to see them as problem-solvers; in family disputes, it is the oldest members who have the final say.
Latin Americans value seniority because in the workplace, length of service means more money and more benefits. Add to this the Latin tendency to honor the family and its oldest members, and you have a culture that generally speaking, shows respect towards older workers.
Most African cultures, meanwhile, are orientated to the past and the present, not the future, which is one reason why older, experienced people command respect. The word ‘mzee’ in Swahili means ‘old’, but in a context of respect rather than ‘one foot in the grave’. Workplaces loosely reflect the hierarchy of the tribe, or village, which typically is headed up by a wiser, older person. In fact, some African cultures view themselves as morally superior to Europeans and Americans purely because of the respect they show their elderly; a viewpoint worth dwelling on for a while.
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