Surviving the Younger Boss

By Orrin Onken

I work for a boss who is twenty years younger than I am. I am fifty. He is thirty. There was a time when I was ashamed of this, thinking it a reversal of the natural order of things that reflected poorly on my socio-economic achievement. My boss, from his perspective, felt uneasy about supervising someone both older and more educated than he. Today, however, the two of us work well and comfortably with each other. Good working relationships do not easily cross generational divides, but as healthy older workers begin staying longer in the workplace, a lot of us are going to be addressing the issue.

My current relationship with my young boss did not emerge easily or intuitively. I had to consciously refrain from behaviors that drive younger bosses crazy. He had to rid himself of some common stereotypes about older workers, and together we had to face some uncomfortable truths about youth and age in the workplace.

Older workers can be difficult to manage. I have listened to young supervisors complain bitterly that they are not respected by older workers, that their opinions are not valued, and that their orders not followed. Older workers can be set in their ways, resistant to change, and obnoxiously know-it-all. Thus, when given a choice in hiring or promotion, young managers prefer people who are young, malleable and respectful. It is a preference that results in age discrimination. It is a preference that is illegal and immoral. It is a preference as natural and understandable as sunrise. Older workers are not responsible for the discrimination against them, but they can act in ways that make discrimination seem a reasonable managerial response.

On the other side of the coin, my thirty-year old boss, like most thirty year olds, is just plain immature. He is energetic, ambitious, aggressive and acquisitive. He is directed toward concrete immediate goals and has a literalness of thought that leaves little room for subtlety, self-examination, or the contemplative pursuits. He secretly thinks that a being a workaholic is an admirable quality and that the experience of his generation is qualitatively more dynamic than that of generations before him. He believes that men and women make free rational choices and that their station is life is determined by the quality of those choices.

I don't share those beliefs, but I fully understand them. In fact, twenty years ago I held them. At fifty, however, they seem to me quaint relics of a stage of human development to which I need never return. Twenty years ago an important and valuable achievement for my boss might have been to skip school and skateboard down the steepest hill in town. Today he would consider taking the afternoon off to do such a thing dangerous and silly. Twenty years ago attempting to acquire as much wealth, power and social status as humanly possible while simultaneously trying to raise a couple of children looked to me like a wonderful idea. Today, at fifty, it is dangerous and silly.

This is not to say that all thirty year olds or all fifty year olds are the same. Some people take aggressiveness and a penchant for acquiring money to their last gasping breath. Some people never develop it. For the most part, however, the stress-inducing ambition that brings us the famous Type A personality is a middle-aged condition. Studies of aging suggest that sometime in the later forties or early fifties we have a value shift. We calm down. We find that family, community and healthy activity become more important than cynicism, a Saab and drinks with the gang. We individuate, become resistant to peer pressures, and develop sophisticated psychological defenses against stress. We discover the importance of a spiritual dimension in our lives and begin to work smarter, not harder.

The generation gap is a value gap. Because of a value shift, a shift that happens every twenty years or so during an average life, a fifty year old often has no more connection to the mental state of a thirty year old than my thirty year old boss has to that ten year old skateboarder. The thirty-year old and the skateboarder, however, do not have to work together. The fifty-year old and the thirty-year old do. To make this pairing work both sides have to face the truth about aging and work performance.

One of the undeniable facts about the differences between the young and old is that youth has advantages. Some advantages are physical. In gymnastics a person is over the hill at fifteen. Professional football players and strippers retire in their thirties. Some advantages are intellectual. Young people often test well and excel at logic problems. The most important advantages, however, are psychological. My father once explained to me that young soldiers not only can follow an order to attack uphill against an entrenched position but will actually do so. Older soldiers simply shoot the man who gave the order. In business, younger people not only can work fifteen hour days living on pizza and coke in order to be the first group of entrepreneurs to sell dog food over the internet, but they will actually do so.

Age, however, also has its job-related advantages. The career of a good judge doesn't peak until well after the commonly accepted retirement age. The minimum age for a U.S. president is thirty-five, a decent Pope doesn't gets started until about sixty, and, as the dot-com world taught us, older CEO's are more often profitable CEO's. At a more mundane level, what the older workers lack in raw physical ability they make up in their ability to avoid the kind of problems that require reflexes and strength to solve. They are more reliable, less volatile, and generally more productive than their younger colleagues.

In the end, however, physical and intellectual performance are seldom serious issues in the modern workplace. As the proliferation of health clubs demonstrates, most jobs are desk jobs. Jobs that do require physical exertion have been so tweaked by ergonomic experts and OSHA that age is seldom a limiting factor. Jobs that require real-life intellectual performance demand the kind of education-analytical mix that peaks in one's fifties. But as long as certain minimums are met bosses don't really care much about physical or analytic performance. They care about values. They want employees who act and think like they do. And there's the rub.

The first step to bridging this value gap and getting along with a younger boss, or younger co-workers for that matter, is to be honest and forthright about the social and psychological differences that separate us. We older workers are simply not going to "fit in," when the business culture is permeated with the values of middle age. We shouldn't even try. Older workers need to respect those values without accepting them, and make clear that's what they are doing. Younger bosses can accept differences. What they can't accept is any employee, including an older employee, pretending to be something he or she isn't.

A good portion of hiring and promotion is done to fill social needs within an organizational culture. Employers seek people to fill social roles and choose the best candidate for those roles out of a group of people who all have the necessary technical skills. If the organizational culture is permeated with young to middle-aged values the older employee must be straightforward about being unable to either internalize those values or fill any holes in the existing "young boy" network. By being up front about this, in addition to providing relevant skills, the older employee has a chance, not only to work successfully with younger colleagues, but to carve out a satisfying role of his or her own making.

Often the older worker must take the lead in this partnership. Never having been there, younger people often imagine the later decades as either a second adolescence or a continuation of middle age. The older worker has already been middle-aged and therefore has the better view. He or she must be patient yet firm in presenting a truer vision.

If one wanders the discussion forums on the web that cater to boomers and other older workers, you will find many tales of workers ousted from jobs in their fifties because a company wanted to re-energize with younger workers. This is common in spite of the fact that several congressional studies and years of anecdotal evidence suggest that older workers are more productive than their younger colleagues. The companies that do these sorts of reorganizations are actually less interested in production than they are in image and attitude. Early on I had to go straight up with my younger boss and tell him that if I was going to be judged on attitude, I was going to lose every time. I had seen way too much in my life to get all atitter over every new project that promised to make some or all of us slightly more money than we made yesterday. If he could accept my casualness as an integral part of my personality and judge me on my production alone, we could get along fine. If I was to be judged on imitating the mental state of younger workers, I was destined to lose no matter how well I did my job.

To this end, it helps the older worker to develop an aggressive Type B personality. I have explained to my younger boss who is always busy that I consider busy-ness a disease that can be cured. Being too old for a lot of deferred reward, I have to take the time to enjoy every day. Thus, I treat being busy as not only a moral failing, but also a breach of personal discipline. It was busy-ness, stress, and rushing about that in my younger years prevented me from contributing to the social life of my community, pursuing the studies I had always wanted to pursue, and being the supportive father and husband that my family wanted. I have emerged into a new stage of development, I do not want that slippery slope toward busy-ness to lay me low once again. In the workplace, I will work long hours. I will work intelligently. I will work creatively. I will not, however, work frantically, and will absolutely refuse to be busy. Once we got this straight, my younger boss and I began to get along.

A second strategy for getting along with the younger boss is to resist the metaphors. This strategy is stolen from feminism in that women had to resist the metaphors that relegated them to inferior or submissive roles. The older employee encounters two kinds of objectionable metaphors. The first group are those that equate ones later working years with decline or as a return to some previous stage of life. The second are those that describe the work environment in terms associated with youthful activity.

Every age group suspects that its own characteristics are really the most desirable and devises pejorative descriptions for those a generation ahead. Thus, middle-agers tend to see older workers as "over the hill," "coasting toward retirement," experiencing "second childhoods," or subject to those memory impairing "senior moments." I resist these characterizations using humor, corresponding pejorative descriptions of middle age, and when necessary, references to the provisions of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. I don't pretend that my protestations will change the underlying attitude, but sometimes driving it underground is enough.

The other metaphors are those which portray the workplace in terms of youthful activity. These metaphors turn business into war, sports, sexual conquest or some other physical activity for which the young are particularly suited. The fact is that most jobs these days consist of sitting at a desk with a phone and a computer screen. The battle and sports metaphors are just so much self-flattery and it is up to the older workers to make this clear. Work is just work. It is important, but it isn't everything and people who think it is everything actually produce more poorly than those who treat it realistically. Again, one cannot eliminate these metaphors, but calling them what they are can protect an older worker from their subtle consequences.

Americans are getting healthier and living longer. Labor is scarce, the retirement age is rising, and public policy favors keeping older workers active in the workplace. Nevertheless, old ideas about work and age die hard. Young managers fall prey to outdated prejudices, particularly when older workers encourage the prejudice by trying to be something they cannot be. Younger bosses make a place for older workers when the workers guide them in the ways of doing it. In fact, when each party can present him or herself without pretense or apology working out an appropriate role in the workplace can sometimes be as easy as just not taking oneself too seriously.

This is not to suggest that mixing generations in the workplace will ever be painless. Complaining about young whippersnappers or old fogies is a pastime as old as mankind. Remembering what it was like back when, or keeping in mind that you will grow old too is easier said than done under the day-to-day stresses of the workplace. And with few exceptions, people simply prefer the company of their own age group. But work isn't really about any of that stuff. It is about completing tasks in a timely and profitable manner. When both the older worker and his or her younger manager are clear about this, they often find that there is time left over to get to know and understand each other. I have grown to like my younger boss. We don't play bridge or golf together. We don't read the same books or listen to the same music. But now and then when business is slow we take some time just to talk about our lives. That is friendship, and there is nothing more conducive to job satisfaction than being able to work among friends.