Working for a younger boss

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By Michelle Diament 

Kathy Rineaman was on the verge of retirement when she met Kate Zabriskie, a bubbly young woman nearly half her age. Before long this new friend was wooing Rineaman away from thoughts of travel and gardening and toward a five-day-a-week job as an office manager. Intrigued by the prospect of a new challenge but a bit nervous, Rineaman wondered: Could a woman in her 60s keep pace with a young entrepreneur?

Three years later, age has not been a barrier for the two. When Zabriskie’s company, Business Training Works Inc., ran a study and designed a staff training program for a nursing home, the young boss leaned heavily on Rineaman’s experience visiting her own mother, who had Alzheimer’s, at a nursing home. The two have developed personal bonds as well; Rineaman says she’s like a grandmother to her boss’s two young children. Today, the 69-year-old has no plans to retire.

Rineaman is not alone. In 2003, an AARP survey found that almost 70 percent of employed 50- to 70-year-olds planned to work in retirement. That means more and more workers like Rineaman will answer to bosses decades their junior. In fact, according to a 2002 study by the Families and Work Institute, 71 percent of workers 58 and older had significantly younger supervisors. Such inter-generational situations can be fraught with misunderstanding. But the keys to success are communication and mutual respect, says Tamara Erickson, president of the Concours Institute, a research and education firm, and an expert on changes in the workforce.

“The biggest complaint boomers have with (Gen X and Y) is they view them as impatient and presumptuous,” she says. Meanwhile, younger bosses who were bred in an environment of teamwork “might see older workers as being too competitive, too willing to sacrifice for their careers. The Ys might instantly draw a negative on the boomers, but they need to understand that comes from the work experience the boomers had early in their careers.”

Sometimes, older workers unconsciously—and unfortunately—may communicate a sense of superiority. Beth Shaw, president of YogaFit Training Systems in Torrance, Calif., says she will never forget one older employee who firmly told her to “sit down” during a staff meeting. “It really made me feel like this person doesn’t have respect [for me],” says Shaw, 41, of the employee who was 10 years her senior. Within months, that employee had moved on from Shaw’s company, yet the experience remains fresh in her mind.

And so does another: “There was a woman who came in recently to interview for a sales position and she was already saying, ‘Oh honey, when I had my business,” and ‘I know what you’re going through.’ I just got a vibe that she would come in with an attitude like she would know more than everybody else.”

Technology usage and management styles may also differ. Stephanie Elfrink, 30, is the registrar at Maryville University in St. Louis. In 2004, she succeeded a man in his 70s who had held the position for decades. All four staffers she inherited were older than her parents – and all still used typewriters. “Every time I’d hear [the typewriter] I’d tell them, ‘Everything you’re doing on there you can do on the computer,’ but [using typewriters] was sort of a security blanket,” Elfrink says.

Within a year, Elfrink lured her staff to computers by promising them new furniture to replace the clunky, mismatched pieces they’d been using. With the new office look came other innovations. The young boss instituted regular staff meetings, a seemingly minor change that had a big impact. “She meets with us on a weekly basis and keeps us informed,” Betty Kutilek, 64, says. For example, after university leaders began talking about instituting online registration three years ago, Elfrink kept her staff apprised and asked for suggestions. When the change finally went into effect in October 2007, everything went smoothly.

Sometimes, though, mixing the generations in the office can become plain uncomfortable. That was the case for Neil Gussman, 54, when he worked at a dot-com company in 2000. Gussman’s colleagues blared hip-hop music from the speakers on their desks and loved the casual dress code. He felt like “an old curmudgeon.”

“I would be the lone person who really missed the suit and tie. Then I realized I was the oldest person in the room,” Gussman says.

Two years later he moved to his current position at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. When he saw the neckties, he knew he’d found a better fit—even though his supervisor at the foundation is nine years his junior.

Forget age. It all comes down to feeling comfortable.

Adopted from Seniorsworld

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