YOUNG TOP DOGS Older workers learn new tricks


The summer before 68-year-old Kay McGurty retired, she was introduced to her new supervisor, a man young enough to be her grandson.

"He has no socks on," she reported to her fellow clerks in the county courthouse building, mostly women of similar vintage. "He's going to be our boss, and he has no socks on."

Another Wunderkind, 26-year-old Jeffrey Zucker, executive producer of NBC-TV's "Today," says he "doesn't even own a suit."

No socks, no suit: Does this perturb an older worker because it signals changing generational lifestyles, or because it's a visible reminder that a younger generation is running the show?

Probably the latter, says management analyst and author Peter F. Drucker, a longtime guru for elite denizens of the executive suite. Mr. Drucker predicts that the major conflicts in the workplace will no longer be between management and labor, but intergenerational struggles between young and old in an "age-heavy" society.

Hard economic times intensify this struggle. Nearly 75,000 MBAs come out each year, with new management theories and style. (( The young "resent the old people who are where they want to be; the old people resent the young who want to push them out," notes Arnold Brown of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, the Manhattan-based management consultants on human resources and emerging trends.

Beset by mergers and takeovers, downsizing, restructuring and recession, more than half the nation's top 1,200 companies have sought to ease out senior employees, mostly by way of buyouts, pension "sweeteners" or "golden handshakes," according to a survey by the American Management Association.

A recent survey by her firm showed most employees give their bosses low marks in "sensitivity," says Martha Sherwood, a psychologist and senior consultant in the New York office of the Wyatt Co., a human resources consulting firm. The older worker, she says, sees the young supervisor as "making decisions based on book learning as opposed to experience in the trenches."

Here are some strategies offered by human resource consultants for what older workers can do to get along with the young boss:

* It's a dirty job: Be glad you're not doing it. Mitchell Marks, a 36-year-old psychologist in the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer Inc., human resources consultants, advises older people to try to understand the pressures on today's young managers. "There's less fun in the workplace today. With the downsizing, we're all doing a job and a half." Middle managers, Mr. Marks points out, "have taken a disproportionate hit. The surviving ones are very busy, very insecure, and that makes them more inaccessible."

He advises older workers to "take the initiative; sit down with the manager and talk things out."

* Women need to support other women. Women, many of whom return to the workplace after years of child-raising, cluster in traditionally female "pink collar" jobs, such as sales or services, where pension coverage is notoriously low.

The returnee is also likely to find herself working for another woman 20 or more years her junior. And she's likely to resent the younger woman boss more than she would a younger man, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

* Don't be intimidated. On the other hand, it may be a case of the younger boss treating the older woman badly "and we hear a lot of that," says Sharon Kinsella, who helps operate a hot line for 9 to 5, (800) 522-0925, a national organization for working women. "Either the younger person resents the skills of the older worker, or she may have been sent in for the purpose of getting rid of the older worker, whose salary or health costs are considered too high."

Mr. Kinsella's advice: "Tell the young boss 'I'm only here to do my job, and to help you do your job. Let's see if we can work this out.' " If that doesn't work, and you continue to be singled out and intimidated, you may have a case of age discrimination, and that's against the law.

* Learn the new tricks. The problem is not strictly a matter of gender, says Ms. Sherwood of the Wyatt Co. One of the more humiliating experiences for longtime employees is to get a negative performance review from a "kid" who has just come on board. Remember, the young manager may just have a communication problem -- "Most companies train their supervisors in technical skills but not in people skills." However, Ms. Sherwood advises the older worker to avoid getting stuck in a rut: "Learn the new technology. You may prefer the paper-and-pencil method, but you should take advantage of every opportunity to pick up computer skills." These skills will come in handy even after you retire. "No job is forever," she says.

* Put mind over money. You may no longer look forward to promotion or salary increases -- you're probably at the top of your salary scale now -- "but there are other non-monetary, psychic satisfactions, a feeling that you're making a contribution to the company," says Martin Sicker, director of the Worker Equity Department for the American Association for Retired Persons in Washington.

And many companies, he says, have come to regret their zeal in squeezing out senior employees. "The theory is you can get a younger person at lower pay, but by the time young people reach that level they expect the same pay," he says, "and it costs a lot more to recruit and train new workers."

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