By choice and necessity, more older Americans are staying in the workforce. As a result, many workplaces now have multiple generations of employees spanning 40 or even 50 years in age. Odds are that senior workers will wind up working for someone young enough to be their child, if not younger.
Besides knowing that workplace differences can't be solved by telling a young boss, "Go to your room!" how can older workers successfully thrive with young colleagues? U.S. News spoke with several workplace experts who provided these tips:
Don't generalize. "Be careful about generalizing, and assuming that a young boss is going to behave in a certain way," says Marci Alboher, a vice president and careers expert with Civic Ventures, a prominent nonprofit promoting encore careers for older people. "We should allow for individual differences and not assume that everyone in a generation behaves in the same way." Jackie James is director of research for the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, and has looked closely at intergenerational relationships at work. "We haven't found much evidence of intergenerational conflict in the research work that we've done," she says.
Listen. "Make sure you are listening to your younger boss," says Monster.com career expert Charles Purdy. Good listening skills can help an older person pick up on any real and potential concerns their boss may have, particularly concerning age-related factors that a younger boss would not communicate directly. "I think following cues is pretty important," Alboher says, "so try to understand your manager's perspective and support them in the best way you can." "Knowing why a younger supervisor was elevated to that status and knowing what strengths that person brings to the organization is very important for the older worker," James says.
Change. Being open to new things is essential in today's workplace and can go a long way toward destroying age-based stereotypes. "It's all about embracing what's new and learning," Alboher says. "You want to show that you're game, and receptive" to new things. "The overarching thing for an older person with a much younger boss is to keep an open mind about new ways to do things," Purdy says.
Career focus. The Sloan Center's work has revealed that age differences between employees and supervisors are not nearly as important as differences in where they are in their careers. People should "think about the career stage as the more important factor," James says. "An older employee might be at the end of their career," she says, "or a novice" in a new business they've joined at a late age.
Teamwork. "There are very different styles in the workplace today," Alboher says, and "more collaborative" attitudes are common as opposed to traditional command and control hierarchies. "The old 'me versus the world' mentality doesn't work in today's interconnected environment," Purdy says. Older workers should focus on how "to create that attachment to their team or their boss," he adds. "There is not so much a shared attachment to their company, but to their team or their boss." In a team environment, relationships with peers can be as important as with bosses, Alboher says, and your boss today could be your subordinate in the future.
Communications. Smart phones and other mobile devices have moved workplace communications from long response times based on paper documents to real-time decisions driven by instant communications. For older workers, developing these new skills is very important, and it's also an excellent way to blow away negative age-based stereotypes. Aside from understanding the tools themselves, it's important for older workers to understand how their boss uses them. "Something that an older worker could do is to sit down with their boss and find out how they want to be communicated with," says Purdy. For example, phone calls may only be for emergencies. The person may prefer text messages to emails. And it's important to know how quickly your boss expects to see a response to their messages.
Work-life balance. "I think we have a workplace now that is a little bit more accepting about bringing your whole self to work," Alboher says. But if personal and family needs are more accepted at work, it's often true that work needs are more likely to be present at home as well, especially given the use of online communications tools. "For a young person, the expectation of always-on availability can be difficult for an older person," Purdy says. "Older people may balk at the notion of being available all the time." But many workplaces are geared toward managing goals and performance, and not as oriented to a time-clock mentality.
Skills. "No one works in a silo anymore," Purdy says. "It's expected that you will learn different things" and be willing to do more than one job. "A problem that older workers face is the difficulty of keeping their job skills up to date," he adds. While job skills are clearly important to people of all ages, the perception that older workers lack such skills can lead to other negative stereotypes based on their age.
Taking a broad historic view of workplace trends, James sees the growing presence of older employees triggering a new type of workplace diversity discussion. "Some employers are recognizing age as a matter of diversity, but few organizations are doing that," she says. "When women entered the workforce in droves, it lead to overgeneralizing about women," James notes. "The same thing happened with minorities." Now, there are similar challenges involving older employees.
"Age is complex," she says. "So is race. So is gender. [Employers] who are on the ball are looking at age in very different ways."