9 Ways to Close the Generation Gap

When young bosses manage older workers – and vice versa – learning to appreciate each age group’s attributes and skills is vital to a cohesive workplace.
9 Ways to Close the Generation Gap
Jennifer FitzPatrick is founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc. and the author of Your 24/7 Older Parent. Reach her at www.jenerationshealth.com.

Since mandatory retirement has long been abolished in most industries, we are living in a time in which multiple generations of employees work together. Healthy, seasoned octogenarians work alongside college interns and every age group in between. This age diversity in the workplace presents challenges in communication, expectations, work ethic, abilities and strengths.

While multigenerational co-workers struggle to understand each other, some of the most difficult situations involve managing a much older or younger staff. Younger managers sometimes categorize their older workers as slower and technologically deficient. Older managers tend to question younger employees’ experience, maturity and work ethic.

For example, Samantha, a newly hired 28-year-old vice president of a small company, supervises David, a 52-year-old manager. She asks David to spearhead a project that will create a Facebook page for their company. He says he doesn’t know much about Facebook but his teenage sons use it all the time. When David asks why the company would want a Facebook page, Samantha rolls her eyes and chalks his question up to David being behind the times.

Robert is a 61-year-old supervisor who constantly receives requests from his staff about having more flexible hours. Several of his employees are in their 20s and 30s and have young children, who need to be dropped off at day care in the morning or picked up after school. Robert tends to have less confidence in employees who want flexible schedules.

What can Samantha and Robert do to better lead their employees of different generations? Samantha could best engage David if she approached the Facebook situation with patience and additional training. Robert would likely inspire the most loyalty with his staff by being a bit more flexible. If he made an effort to put some work-life balance policies in place, his staff might perceive him as more reasonable and work even harder.

There are challenges from the subordinate’s perspective as well.

While it’s usually a mistake to underestimate a younger manager, many older workers do. Sure, it’s possible that a younger employee might have been hired or promoted due to nepotism or other unjustifiable reasons. But typically, that younger person deserves the position due to education, experience, leadership potential or other abilities. Regardless, it’s important to judge younger managers on merit rather than age. While a seasoned employee may resent a younger person coming in and telling him or her what to do, it is likely this person has something unique to offer.

Sometimes the resentment toward a younger boss has more to do with the older worker than anything the younger manager has done. Reporting to a younger manager can trigger feelings of inadequacy or old age, and regret for how an older worker’s career has turned out. Older workers may think back to when they began their careers and second-guess their choices. Older employees struggling to accept a younger manager should focus on getting along and supporting him or her as they would with any other boss.

In working with a boss of a younger generation, the older worker should:

Keep an open mind. Almost everyone we encounter at work can teach us something. At the very least, most younger managers have fresh, new ideas that can invigorate the workplace.

Avoid discussion of the younger manager’s age. When an older worker starts to compare the younger manager to his daughter or even granddaughter, it can offend the manager. Younger managers know their age; they don’t need older staff reminding them.

Refrain from too many references about the past. Younger managers will not appreciate older employees harping on the way “it’s always been done” or the way things were “before you were out of diapers.”

Make an effort to learn technology the boss uses. Not only will this impress a younger manager, it will increase the older subordinate’s skill set.

Accept this person as the boss. Ultimately, if the older worker wants to remain in the position or even be promoted, an attitude shift is critical.

Younger workers also have a challenge understanding their older managers. They find themselves frustrated when the older manager does not embrace technology, lives in the past or dismisses younger counterparts when they don’t recognize pop culture references of previous eras.

In working with a boss of an older generation, younger employees should:

Respect the years of experience their manager brings to the table. Even when an older boss acts in a way the younger staff does not agree with, it should be acknowledged that the decision might be based on past learning experiences.

Understand that “face time” may be important to an older manager. It is common for older bosses to be less open to working from home or nontraditional hours because it was not something they had ever become comfortable with. If employees do have flexible schedules or work offsite, they may want to check in regularly and take steps to reassure the older manager that work is getting done.

Explain pop culture references to keep the older employee in the loop. A 20-something who mentions an incident he or she saw on a reality show should take the time to let his 60-something boss in on the joke.

Accept that meetings and phone calls may be preferable to social media. While many older workers embrace technology — Skype, email and instant messaging, for example — some favor more traditional modes of communication. Going with the flow on the boss’ desired communication method will be appreciated by an older manager.

We will continue to see multiple generations collaborating at work. More retirees are re-entering the workforce for extra cash, and many older adults are delaying retirement indefinitely. With more high school and college graduates entering the workforce every year, it is important for workers of all ages to make an effort to understand and appreciate each other.


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