The Generation Gap at Work: Managing the Older Worker--or Younger Boss

Last Updated Jan 19, 2011 4:51 PM EST

Would you be comfortable reporting to someone younger than your kids? Or hiring someone twice your age? Wharton professor Peter Cappelli, who directs the Wharton Center for Human Resources, says uneasiness about age differences often prevents younger managers and older employees from forging productive relationships.

With more baby boomers staying in the workforce longer, more managers are likely to find themselves dealing with a generational divide. In their book Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, co-authors Cappelli and Georgetown's Bill Novelli (who used to be CEO of the AARP) argue that older workers represent an overlooked bargain, and that hiring managers need to rethink their attitudes toward employing them. In an interview with BNET, Cappelli gives practical advice to older workers and younger managers looking to make the most of their work relationship.

At what age does it become a particular problem for an older employee trying to work with a younger boss?

When the age gap between the older worker and the younger manager is bigger, it's more uncomfortable. Most people see the problem as really intense for people who are above 55, and a majority of senior managers say age discrimination becomes an issue between ages 50 and 55.

How should an older job candidate handle an interview with a younger person who might become their boss?
The important thing is to be non-threatening. Don't spend too much time talking about all the stuff you've done that suggests that you could do the supervisor's job. Focus on the job that they're trying to fill, and your ability to come in and hit the ground running. You need to persuade them that the job is really appealing, and you're not just doing it because you're a frustrated supervisor. You want to impress upon them that you like this kind of work and that you've always found it interesting.

What about the younger boss?
For the younger supervisor the big problem is knowing thyself and understanding the bias that we have toward older people. [The younger person may] tend to wonder, "Why is this guy not further along in their career? Why do they want this job? There must be something wrong with them."

Then there is the social aspect: How can I manage someone the age of my parents? But why are you hiring someone in the first place? You want someone who can do the job, do it well, and not be a pain in the neck.

You wouldn't want to say, " 'I'm not comfortable around women, therefore I don't want to hire a woman.' You want to say, 'This person can get the job done, I might be a little uncomfortable but I've got to get over that.'"

You say a younger manager should treat older workers differently. Why?

Someone who has a lot of experience doesn't need a lot of coaching and assistance. That's a good thing. You want to engage an older person--delegate more stuff, seek their advice.

The model I look to is the model the military uses. They often have 22 year-old second lieutenants in charge of 40 year-old sergeants. Before making big decisions, the lieutenants are told to go talk to those sergeants and talk it through. Recognize that the sergeants will work better if they feel they are respected, and recognize that they can help you a lot. If you try to boss them around and say "Do this because I know best," that's not going to work.

How can a supervisor make sure that this more experienced person isn't after his job?
If the younger person is looking for someone to do this current job, and you don't want someone who's a frustrated manager, you should just ask them about that. Ask, "Have you been interested in management roles?"

Aren't older workers more likely to leave a job after a short time?
Older workers turn over less than their younger workers. Younger workers are more likely to look at a job as a stepping-stone. Younger workers are sort of footloose, and a lot more likely to quit to go join their fiancee in another state. At a job interview, older workers in general should emphasize that they're stable in their personal life, they've got roots here, and they know what they want to do at this point.

Should an older worker to try to give the impression that they're younger than they really are?
I certainly know of people going to great lengths to look younger than they are. I think it's better to market yourself as an asset with experience rather than try to look younger than you are.

If a company wants people who are up to speed on technology and who can fit right in and be comfortable with people who are younger, do you want to look 30? Or do you want to spend your time prepping to make sure you're very comfortable with everything going on with that workplace, all the technology issues, all the things going on with that customer base? You hope the manager will confront their biases.

Have you ever hired someone much older than you? Or worked for someone many years your junior? Was the relationship comfortable, and if not, what did you do to improve it?

Photo courtesy of flickr user Pranavian
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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