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The 'young boss, older employee' dilemma

By Tara Weiss, Forbes
March 03, 2007 15:04 IST
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When Jim Schneider was the boss, he viewed older workers as dead weight. "I had the perception that older employees were tired, not as productive and couldn't do work that younger people do," says Schneider, the former owner of a major regional auto parts recycling center, now 63. When he came out of retirement a few months ago, however, he found himself on the other side of the age divide.

Just because older employees like Schneider want to work, doesn't mean they want to be in charge. After 25 years as the boss, Schneider wanted to be active and challenged without all the responsibility of running a business. That task rests on his new boss, Jeffrey Schroder, who is 20 years younger.

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The "younger boss-older employee" dynamic is becoming more common as the number of over-55 workers grows. Numbers aren't available on how prevalent that scenario is, but the number of older workers in the workforce is skyrocketing: From 2000 to 2005, the number of employees in the workforce ages 55 and older increased nearly 30 per cent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demographers expect that trend to accelerate over the coming years. Meanwhile, the number of 25- to 54-year-olds in the workforce increased just one per cent between 2000 and 2005.

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The generations' different work styles and perceptions of each other can create many challenges. One of them is the perceived difference in work ethic. For instance, older workers tend to believe in face time at the office. "They show up early, work through lunch and on the weekends," says Linda Gravett, co-author of Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More. "Gen X and Yers were raised in the Internet era, where it doesn't necessarily matter where the work gets done, as long as it does."

Jill Arlinghaus, an assistant controller for Burke Inc. in Cincinnati, sees that difference in work style all the time. There are a few 50-somethings on her team, and they generally arrive around 7:30 a.m. The 20- and 30-something employees tend to trickle in around 8:30. She says she can't help but notice that the work ethic of the older employees is stronger.

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Another difference: Older workers are used to meeting more regularly to discuss projects and goals, whereas younger bosses are more likely to hand an employee a project and let that person run with it. "The communication styles are different," says Robin Throckmorton, co-author of Bridging the Generation Gap. "Younger bosses tend to say, 'Shoot me an e-mail.'"

Technology can be a sticking point. Arlinghaus says her younger employees grew up using computers and Web-based applications, so learning new ones comes more intuitively to them. "It's not that older workers aren't willing to learn," she says. "You have to walk them through it. The younger people are more willing to figure it out for themselves." Arlinghaus says it's important to show older employees that she is always happy and willing to answer technology-related questions.

It's not a one-way street. There are plenty of times Arlinghaus taps into her older co-workers' knowledge base. She's been with the company for six years, versus some of her employees who have been with the company for two decades or more. Those veterans offer insight on the temperaments of other employees and on details of past projects.

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Tara Weiss, Forbes