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Careers

Older Workers, Younger Bosses

When older workers meet younger bosses, sparks can fly.

Peter Cappelli directs the Wharton School's Center for Human Resources and is the coauthor of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.

How do you define older workers and younger supervisors? The legal definition of an older worker is anyone over 40, but the issues we're seeing are driven by people around the historical retirement age of 65. Especially in the corporate world, it's possible to find people in their thirties doing jobs that in the past workers in their forties or fifties would do. But the biggest conflicts happen when supervisors are in their late forties and early fifties, and want to distinguish themselves from the older age group.

Where are we most likely to find such May-December work relationships? The major conflicts are in corporate America. Executives are getting younger, while people who come back as part-time workers and contractors -- and some regular employees as well -- tend to be older. But you see it in lower-end service jobs, too. Evidence suggests that 88% of companies have concerns about conflict between younger supervisors and older workers.

What are some of the problems? The biggest one is that younger supervisors are reluctant to hire older workers. Discrimination seems more pervasive against older workers than it is against women or minorities, despite the fact that older workers can contribute immediately without having to get up to speed. Younger supervisors are afraid to manage someone with more experience -- how do I boss around someone doing this work longer than I have? Sometimes they just don't manage older subordinates -- they ignore them, don't keep them in the loop, or don't hold them accountable.

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How can both parties make the relationship work? The onus is more on the younger supervisors -- they're in charge. They've got to get away from a leadership model of "Do this because I say so" or "Because I know best." Instead, develop a partnership. Talk about goals you can achieve. Leadership becomes less about formal authority and more about engagement. Older workers should manage their expectations -- they're not in charge and they have to get over that. But they also don't have the stress and aggravation of management responsibility.