Older Workers Face Younger Bosses

Research from CareerBuilder sheds light on management shifts in the workplace. The new work landscape is full of younger people in authority and older workers coping with the day-to-day challenges presented by the generation gap.

If you haven't noticed, the average age of the workforce continues to drop. At no time is this more evident than when you ask older workers what it is like to be managed by younger bosses. A CareerBuilder report that polled 5,200 workers found 43 percent of workers who are 35 or older work under younger managers.
As you go up the spectrum of age brackets, the numbers consistently rise: 53 percent of workers 45 and older have younger bosses; as do 69 percent in the 55-or-over age bracket.

"As companies emerge from this recession, it is important for employees to work together and move the business forward, regardless of their age," said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. "With so many different age groups present, challenges can arise. Younger and older workers both need to recognize the value that each group brings to the table."
Part of the reason is the evolution of the workforce, but also the sheer size of the baby-boom generation. A 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that between 2000 and 2005, the number of workers over 55 increased 30 percent. In that same time period, younger workers between 25 and 54 increased only 1 percent.
How should older workers best deal with younger managers? First, show respect for what they bring to the position and what they offer the business, advised author Tammy Erickson in a Harvard Business Review piece, "Young Bosses, Older Direct Reports."
"Our research shows that lack of respect and a patronizing attitude are the two most annoying and destructive (and unfortunately common) behaviors when older workers interact with younger bosses," wrote Erickson, who also works for collaboration software company nGenera. "While the older worker may well have more experience in the specific industry or function than the younger boss, the younger boss may have some new perspectives that will improve the way things have 'always' been done."

Complaints from older workers range from the petty to the serious, going by the CareerBuilder report. Common complaints include:

  • They act like they know more than me when they don't
  • They act like they're entitled and didn't earn their position
  • They micromanage
  • They play favorites with younger workers
  • They don't give me enough direction

This shift in the relative age of management certainly brings challenges, but that does not mean younger and older workers do not share some of the same goals on the job. The Center for Work-Life Policy found in 2009 that there are some real drivers that are common among baby boomers and Generation Y (workers under 28).
"Stated at the highest level, our finding is that people, especially Gen Ys and boomers, are looking for what we call a 'remixed' set of rewards: flexible work arrangements and the opportunity to give back to society trump the sheer size of the pay package," wrote Sylvia Hewlett, economist and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. "That was true before the downturn hit and remains so even as its full brunt is being felt."