Intergenerational conflict at US airlines: an unresolved Oedipal Complex?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Purpose – The purpose of this study is to investigate how, if at all, organizational dynamics changed at US airlines after an industry wide modification to mandatory retirement age regulations in 2007. Findings challenge assumptions that society, organizations, and employees will all unequivocally benefit from abolishing mandatory retirement by investigating the impact of age related policy changes on US airline pilots.

Design/methodology/approach: Forty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted with captains and copilots from US airlines between September 2010 and July 2011. From this data set, two informant subgroups emerged: 1) senior captains averaging 59 years of age; and 2) junior pilots averaging 43.5 years of age.

Findings: Findings revealed that both senior and junior pilots reported retirement age policy changes created an antagonistic environment, pitting employees against each other in competition over scarce resources.

Implications: Considerable research has been conducted identifying the policy and practice changes that employers need to adopt to retain older workers. However, few studies consider the psychological impact of these age-related workplace changes on employees or the organizational psychodynamics they might trigger.

Originality/value: This article makes two main contributions. First, through use of the psychoanalytic construct of the Oedipus complex, the paper sheds light on some of the psychodynamic consequences of age related policy changes. Second, it challenges assumptions about workforce aging and the underlying causes of intergenerational conflict, highlighting ways that policy changes intended to eradicate discrimination against older workers can result in age discrimination against younger employees.

Limitations: Article findings are based on empirical materials collected during an eleven month snapshot-in-time between September 2010 and July 2011 and interview data is based on a small subgroup of US airline pilots who self-selected to participate in the study. Therefore, findings are not unbiased and may not be generalizable across all airlines’ pilot workgroups.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-88
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Managerial Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2017


  • Age discrimination, Conflict, Downsizing, Employee relations, Managerial psychology