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With boomers staying in the work force longer, the gap between the youngest and oldest employees is widening. Asper School of Business researcher Arran Caza will explore the implications.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

With baby boomers stalling retirement past 65 and millennials streaming into the work force, many companies are facing a generational clash as people of all ages struggle to adjust to working with each other.

Leadership is top among the concerns, says Arran Caza, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business in Winnipeg.

He sees the conflict brewing in his own classroom.

"My [older] executive education students are trying to figure out how to reach and motivate their new employees, and my [younger] MBA and even undergrad hotshots are worrying about how to handle being the boss of someone who is their parents' age," he says in an e-mail.

The intensity of the discussion piqued Dr. Caza's curiosity.

Do workers prefer leaders who are older than they are or younger?

The question is at the centre of his new research, which is set to begin next year after he won a fellowship from the University of Manitoba's Centre on Aging, where he is a research affiliate.

Drawing from both evolutionary psychology and social psychology theory, the new research will examine three key areas associated with leadership:

– How a leader's age affects his or her own behaviour.

– How a leader's age affects followers' behaviour.

– How the age of followers affects a leader's behaviour.

Age does play a factor in leadership styles and impact, says Dr. Caza, who has expertise in leadership. For instance, older workers tend to offer richer and more informed emotional experiences.

Our hard-wired responses to age and age stereotypes – finding young people "cute" or perceiving wisdom in elders – also play a part in our interactions.

The study comes as the modern workplace undergoes significant change, shaped by demographic shifts.

"Folks are retiring later, which means there are more older people working. That means more older leaders," says Dr. Caza.

At the same time, in some cases younger workers are finding themselves leading people much older than they are as they move further into their careers.

"Traditionally, having an employee 20 years older than you was rare and often the source of discomfort, but it's going to become increasingly common," says Dr. Caza.

The researcher hopes the new study will help shape corporate policy to smooth age-related problems as they arise. Current research is typically based on people in their 40s leading employees in their 20s, he says.

"But intuition, experience and theory all suggest that a 45-year-old leading a 25-year-old is not the same as 25 leading 45 or 65 leading 25," he adds.

Certainly, at the least, the research will better prepare Dr. Caza for the classroom.

"I'm hoping to have some evidence-based advice to offer my students when they ask me these age-related leadership questions," he says.

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