Meet the Young(er) Boss ; Older Americans Are Increasingly Likely to Work for Someone Younger - Relationships That Don't Always Run Smoothly

Article excerpt

Until recently, Stephen Schechter had spent his 37-year career reporting to bosses older than himself. For six years, he even enjoyed the luxury of answering only to himself as owner of a small public-relations agency. So it came as something of a surprise a year ago when Mr. Schechter accepted a position as vice president of 5W Public Relations in New York.

His new boss, chief executive Ronn Torossian, is young enough to be his son.

"This is dramatic," Schechter says of the role reversal. "It's interesting, exciting, and challenging."

"Steve is older than my mom and my dad," adds Mr. Torossian. "He has a lot of years of experience that I don't have."

Welcome to the 21st century version of the generation gap. As older Americans delay retirement or return to the labor force, lured by the need for a paycheck or the desire for productive activity, they're increasingly likely to work for someone younger. A coming shortage of skilled labor will push employers to hire 5.3 million older workers by 2010 and 14 million by 2020, according to the National Commission for Employment Policy.

Already these new workplace relationships, casting youth and maturity in new roles, are creating a mini-industry of generational researchers and business consultants to help companies manage change. They're even the theme of a new movie, "In Good Company," starring Dennis Quaid as a middle-aged ad executive faced with a new boss nearly half his age.

No one pretends these topsy-turvy arrangements are always easy. Younger bosses may harbor stereotypes that older employees resist change. Older workers may regard their younger superiors as arrogant or less loyal to the company.

For Schechter and Torossian, their 30-year age difference became part of the discussion during Schechter's job interview. "He brought it up," says Torossian, who considers Schechter's age an advantage. "As a young entrepreneur, I need to have smart, successful people around me who can give a variety of insights regardless of their age."

Schechter says his initial challenges included learning to work within the boundaries Torossian has set for the agency and the staff, and being able to fit in with young colleagues. "I'm learning a lot from him and from the younger people here," he adds. "If anything, it's really energized me and made me feel younger."

Not everyone has such smooth sailing. Rose Jonas, an organizational consultant in St. Louis, is working with two female clients - a 26-year-old boss and her 52-year-old subordinate. "The younger one doesn't know how to manage, and the executive assistant has an MBA and an attitude about taking work from a younger person." Both women are good at their jobs.

Ms. Jonas is trying to teach the manager to be less rigidly authoritative. Even so, she thinks the older woman will eventually leave, "blaming all the way."

To prevent such situations, consultants emphasize the need to understand each age group: the Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1981, who are now managers, and the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, who work for them.

"Each generation experienced very different formative years, and as a result brings very different values to the American workplace," says Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative, business consultants in Cincinnati.

Baby boomers, Mr. Underwood notes, are a generation that has defined itself by work. "They made the 60-hour workweek normal," he says. "They took work calls at home and worked on weekends."

In sharp contrast, he continues, Generation X has grown up with a distrust of big business, big government, and older people in general. "Many Xers in their childhood saw their workaholic parents suffer from fatigue, illness, substance abuse, and divorce. So Xers entered their career years less loyal to the company and more determined to work a reasonable workday and leave the office sharply at 5. …