Boss Is Half Your Age ?

Bob Larson, CPC


With companies looking to fill management ranks with people who are “digital natives” –frequently translating to millennials and Gen X-ers – and with more baby boomers staying on the job longer, the odds are becoming greater that older workers will increasingly be answering to managers young enough to be their children, according to an article in The New York Times.

“Obviously, there have always been younger people in the work force, but in the past, younger workers were on the lower floor and older workers were executives on the upper floors and in the executive dining room,” said Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant with Insperity, a personnel management firm.

But because younger workers now have the advantage in sheer numbers, “there are more opportunities for them to move into management ranks,” Chapman continued. “They’re in their 30s, and they had lots of experience because of internships we older workers gave them when they were in high school and college. They had those experiences, and they had the chops for exec positions at an earlier age.”

According to the article, if older workers have difficulty adjusting, there’s good reason: It goes against the natural order that the subordinate would have several decades on the supervisor.

“Research shows that older workers are not as responsive to at younger boss because they feel he or she shouldn’t be in that position,” said Orlando Richard, an associate professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, who recently completed a study on status incongruence.

There are implications for the organization, too, the article pointed out. “The older workers with younger bosses are less committed to the company,” Professor Richard said. “They’re not as engaged in the job. If they’re close to retirement, they may not leave, but they may not work as hard.”

Of course, there are plenty of older workers who continue to give the job their all, even though they now report to someone who thinks of Nirvana as an oldies band. The way they see it, though, that younger boss sure doesn’t make it easy.

There are, indeed, challenges on both sides of the May-December workplace divide, according to the article. Older workers may feel they’ve lost their shot at running the show, and younger workers may feel their older subordinates just can’t wait for them to mess up, said David Stillman, an author of the new book “Gen Z @ Work.” The co-author: his son, Jonah, 17, perhaps a future younger boss.

Further, older workers, accustomed to the parental role, may reflexively offer advice to younger bosses who chafe at the effrontery. “They’ll say, ‘In my day….’ Implying your day is wrong,’” Stillman said.

For their part, some younger bosses act as though the world began only when they arrived on the scene, “which makes older workers feel that their own considerable experience doesn’t matter,” Stillman said.

Smart companies are making efforts to address the growing issue. AT&T, for example, offers supervisors a two-hour course, “Managing the Cross-General Workforce, which “helps prepare them to effectively communicate with and motivate their direct reports,” Jan Rasmussen, a company spokesperson, told the newspaper.

And not every older worker feels marginalized or underappreciated, nor does every younger boss feel disdainful and misunderstood.

Take Valentino Lanoce, for example.  “I don’t look at age – I look at business intelligence,” said the 54-year old Lanoce, the regional director of operations for the restaurant chain Verts Mediterranean Grill, who reports to the company’s founders, Dominik Stein, 29, and Michael Heyne, 32. “Dominik and Michael respect my experience in the industry, and they ask for my opinion and advice. It’s very collaborative.”

Lanoce said that his interview with Stein and Heyne “was like sitting with mature officers of a company.” He said: “They’re disciplined and professional. Otherwise, I never would have left where I was to come to work for them.”

That said, as in many new relationships, the article pointed out, there’s a struggle to find a way. Diversity issues have long been part of the terrain, and “there are all these hang-ups at first,” said Chapman of Insperity.

It was a similar dynamic, she added, when women were coming into the workforce. “It’s something we have to figure out how to make it work,” Chapman said.