- Downward envy is a feeling of inferiority caused when a leader sees that a subordinate has something that the leader wants but lacks.
- Downward envy can create power struggles in many settings, including in cases when younger people are up against the egos of narcissistic elders.
- Signs of downward envy include magnifying minor shortcomings, conflating correctness with rank, and obstructing a younger person's promotion.
A majority of us could likely name older relatives who never admit fault or apologize, never receive feedback without finger-pointing, never tell the full story without selective omission, and never uplift others without sprinkling backhanded compliments or passive-aggressive sarcasm. Elders with more covert narcissism might be known for gossiping, turning relatives against one another, manipulating conflicts via guilt or the silent treatment, and most commonly, playing innocent when people return what they first dished out.
“Respect your elders” sounds benign at face value, but the ageism inherent in that adage can also rationalize an older-younger power dynamic that is unreciprocal, exploitative, overbearing, and silencing. Ageism, or prejudice and/or discrimination motivated by perceived age or generation, works against older or younger people alike. Here, it refers to biases that pathologize younger people as innately directionless, lazy, naive, needy, rebellious, selfish, and shallow.
These stereotypes uphold the tradition of justifying status quo conventions and hierarchies, no matter how inequitable and oppressive they may be, solely for the convenience of high-ranking elders. In pre-modern times — predating formal education and accessible higher education — the views of elder patriarchs dictated the social order. Their monopoly on community resources and institutional authority, often combined with unified resistance to sociopolitical progress, ensured their dominance and legacy. This partly explains backlash to many progressive, youth-led movements.
Yet, while people generally frame generational power struggles in terms of self-preservation and fear of the unknown, downward envy is also a severely under-discussed factor.
The Challenge of Checking Downward Envy
Downward envy, first conceptualized in the context of the workplace, is defined as “the painful feeling of inferiority caused when supervisory leaders perceive that subordinates have something the supervisor desires, but lacks.” But downward envy creates power struggles in numerous environments. The assassinations of Marvin Gaye Jr. — by his father, Marvin Gaye Sr. — and Selena Quintanilla — by her former manager Yolanda Saldívar — are only but two examples of this commonplace dynamic.
Younger victims are up against not only the fragile egos of elders, but also spectators’ disbelief that elders, even at their ripe age, could still grapple with insecurity and self-comparison. Few can fathom that elder narcissists are a true terror — research shows that the waning influence of their social status and youthful looks can trigger a deep fear of being forgotten or overlooked. So, they may reach for scapegoats. Others suggest as narcissists age, they become more close-minded, self-centered, immature, alienating, and inflexible, in addition to developing higher levels of paranoia and victim-playing.
Speaking up only provokes backlash. Elders — broadly, anyone endowed with disproportionate access, authority, or status — often collude to preserve their reputations, working to make an example of the young person who dared expose a truth that they planned to sweep under the rug. They may scramble to hush the exposure of any character defects that detract from their clout or public facade of all-knowing competence and enlightenment. And if minions have enabled their god/superiority complex, self-righteous denialism may ensue regarding the facts of a conflict, even despite evidence.
It takes courage to challenge someone willing to negate your perspective with mere seniority. You’re often up against public shaming and passive-aggressive invalidation, rumors and alienation, along with intimidation and silencing. But even if your survival depends on acquiescing to them putting you in your “place" for now, you don’t have to believe that’s where you belong. Here are examples — of projections about who you are, what you know, what you’ve seen, and where you’re going — to look out for.
Signs of Downward Envy
1. Being committed to doubting your skills and underestimating your [self-]awareness. One way to undercut a younger person’s credibility is to magnify a minor shortcoming in their work, then frame it as a lack of intelligence or skill. A deficit-based lens negates their efforts entirely, even for the slightest blindspot or slip-up. Incompetence gets emphasized repeatedly, until it constitutes the dominant narrative.
2. Conflating correctness or truth with age, prominence/stature, or title. This tactic can look like factors irrelevant to the validity of the younger person’s point — like generation or organizational rank — getting weaponized to squash any challenge to the status quo, or any exposure of authority’s incompetence and willful ignorance. All younger people are stereotyped as immature, and therefore lacking in sufficient or relevant life experience to have formed any opinion at all.
3. Punishing you while granting favoritism to allies, peers, and non-threatening subordinates. As previously mentioned, downward envy can look like holding younger talent to an unrealistic standard. What’s worse, though, is when elders enforce this strictness while publicly exempting their circle of “favorites,” almost as if to rub it in the younger person’s face. The younger person will often get called difficult or nosy for calling out very blatant and hypocritical double standards.
4. Gossiping or joking at your expense to taint others’ first impressions or positive interactions. The point here is to thwart opportunities for others to experience the fullness of who you are, and possibly like and support you. So, behind your back, they plant seeds of doubt that would color others’ first impressions. The flip side is taking every opportunity to openly mock younger talent, normalizing disdain toward them. This treatment could freeze up younger folks who struggle with assertiveness.
5. Calling you a know-it-all or show-off. Elders with fragile egos may seem to enjoy humbling folks as they receive congratulations, based on their assumption that no one else can handle attention without getting a big head. They project their arrogance/insecurity and feel threatened by anyone else’s confidence. They may call an accomplished young person egotistical or “fake” — even when they’re far from it — or belittle and downplay every noteworthy thing they do.
6. Deeming you unready to move up — again. Obstructing a young person’s promotion can look like repeatedly demoralizing them. Elders might constantly move the goalpost or raise the bar, holding them to ever-changing standards. They’re never "ready" enough because no improvement is ever enough. Meanwhile, mentorship is withheld, and they’re labeled impatient for inquiring when things might change.
7. Minimizing your impact by highlighting your path's limitations, especially in contrast to theirs. This looks like disparaging a young person’s passions as insignificant while elevating other interests as more impactful or worthwhile. The elder person discredits the young person’s career or hobbies by framing their personal preferences as the superior standard. Never mind the young person’s fulfillment or that there may be more to what they do/share about it than meets the eye.
8. Dismissing sincere apologies devoid of self-ridicule. No apology is ever enough when an envious elder enjoys seeing a younger person grovel at their feet. And apologies not accompanied by excessive vulnerability — often to an undeserving audience — don’t count. Don’t hold your breath for their apology, ever.
9. Framing your reactions as “craziness” and “drama” while ignoring their petty provocations. Narcissistic elders grant themselves permission to push people’s buttons relentlessly, and yet they expect compliance and composure from whomever they push over the edge. Otherwise, you’re labeled “sensitive” or a troublemaker, as if they'd tolerate their own passive aggression and obnoxious mind games.
10. Parodying your gestures or voice/accent in a condescending or infantilizing way. What seems like simple teasing is often subconscious, repressed disdain bubbling to the surface. Take note.