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
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. …