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Stereotypes about older and younger workers overblown

Adriene Hill Jun 10, 2011

Stereotypes about older and younger workers overblown

Adriene Hill Jun 10, 2011

Steve Chiotakis: The weak economy has forced some baby boomers to stay in the work force longer. And that’s created a new office dynamic.

A survey by Career Builder says more than 40 percent of workers older than 35 have a younger boss.

Marketplace’s Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: It’s easy to imagine how this could go badly: You’ve got a 60-some-year-old employee, stubbornly set in his cumbersome paper-filling-out ways, reporting to a 20-some-year-old boss, who thinks she knows it all already — and knows she wants work done on the computer. Immediately.

“Bye-Bye Birdie” runs in a loop through the old-timers head.

“Bye-Bye Birdie”: Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way. What’s the matter with kids today?

Black Eyed Peas is thumping in the head of the know-it-all upstart.

Black Eyed Peas singing “Now Generation”: Checking my account, logging in and logging out. Baby, I want it now. This is the now generation.

Bring the two together and you might expect a discordant mess. But experts and real life employees say that’s not really how it plays out. For the most part, age differences in the work force don’t create the problems that stereotypes would have us believe — because a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true.

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes: The extent to which differences either in age, or in some cases, it’s framed as generations has been a bit overblown.

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes heads the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. She says research shows that many of the perceptions we have about younger and older workers just aren’t right. Older employees can be technically savvy; young people can be good communicators.

But the stereotypes still matter.

Pitt-Catsouphes: Because even though they’re just perceptions and attitudes, it kind of shapes a little bit how the workplace may respond to people of different age groups.

And the stereotypes pop up in some surprising ways. Evan Hagberg is 27. He owns and runs a utility service company in Ohio. His office is filled with trade tools — zone maps, wire gauges, and:

Evan Hagberg: A dog-warning board over there, and that’s for dangerous dogs to look out for and certain things in the field.

Many of his 15 employees are more than twice his age. Hagberg says he hasn’t run into many generation gap issues, but there was one time when he was doing a hiring interview and the interviewee asked to meet the manager.

Hagberg: And when I informed him that I, in fact, owned the company, he got a quizzical look on his face and leaned back and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I necessarily want to work for your company, but thank you for the opportunity.”

Hagberg hired someone else.

Hagberg: Many of our older workers are the most effective and proficient technicians that we have.

Good work relations seem to have a lot more to do with individuals than age differences. Sure, there are things that really young bosses might not understand immediately — like why everyone can’t just stay at work till two and sleep on the floor when things get really busy.

But good managers learn.

Skip Sanchez: I can have good managers that are older, good managers that are younger. It really just depends on the person.

Skip Sanchez is 64 years old. He works in finance. He says in the last 10 years, most of his supervisors have been younger than he is. And he kind of likes it.

Sanchez: I thinks it keeps me younger, younger thinking. And I enjoy being around younger people.

Sanchez isn’t an outlier. Generational gaps alone don’t create that many problems in functioning work places. According to that Career Builder survey, only about 5 percent of workers older than 55 said they don’t like taking directions from a younger boss.

It turns out the people who least like their younger bosses are the younger employees. But that’s another story.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace Money.

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