Young workers reaching for management


Imagine a middle-aged advertising executive reporting to a boss who is half his age.The scenario - featured in a plot in the 2004 movie In Good Company - isn't farfetched.

More than ever, young workers are being hired or promoted as managers earlier in their careers compared with past generations, experts say. The shift is prevalent in part because layoffs and buyouts of more senior workers have pushed 20- and 30-somethings into management jobs. Younger workers also are using their skills at mastering new technologies to move up faster. And increasingly, the old rules of paying dues, climbing the hierarchal corporate ladder and seniority don't always apply.

"Dues-paying has lost its relevance, which means that over time, people are going to think less about whether you've been here long enough to be promoted. It'll be simply about looking at your skills and maturity," said Robert W. Wendover, managing director of the Center for Generational Studies in Colorado. "And that's the advantage for young people."

It's a change that does not sit well with everyone, even though most workers could find themselves facing such a scenario at some point in their careers. Experts say not all older employees and managers feel comfortable - at least initially - working for or hiring a boss who's closer to their children's age. Some of that is due to resentment or worries about the younger manager's lack of experience or maturity to handle the work at hand.

And some young workers are deliberately shunning management jobs in part because they don't want to make serious career commitments, said Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative, a workplace consulting firm in Cincinnati.

Still, workplace consultants say they're seeing more managers under 35 attending management training seminars throughout the country. And young managers at Baltimore-area companies say they bring a strong work ethic, fresh ideas and advanced technology skills to the table. They believe age isn't much of an issue as long as their work matches up.

"We expect to move up the ladder pretty quickly," said Laura Crovo, 27, a public relations account director at MGH, an advertising and public relations firm in Owings Mills. She was recently promoted to the senior management position after spending two years as a mid-level manager.

"It was my goal to come here, grow and learn as much as I could as quickly as possible," said Crovo, who manages six people.

With an aging work force, experts say management ranks could be filled with more young faces.

A 2004 study by New York-based Families and Work Institute found that 71 percent of 254 surveyed workers 58 years and older expect to be managed by significantly younger people. For 1,268 baby boomers, 23 percent said they expect to work with significantly younger managers.

Even as millions of baby boomers reach retirement age, career experts say many plan to work in some capacity. Surveys among baby boomers show that many expect to continue working past retirement age or find second careers in jobs that are less demanding.

"That person will retire but work for someone with more flexible hours and less responsibility," Wendover said. "And the reality is that they may be reporting to someone 30 years their junior."

Lynda McDermott, president of EquiPro International, a leadership development and consulting firm in New York, said the shift is producing interesting relationship dynamics. Young managers always have been called on to supervise their peers and workers as old as their parents. Increasingly, young managers also find themselves overseeing workers who are their grandparents' age.

"There's more multigenerational complexities that these young managers need to manage," said McDermott, who has written about new young managers.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, a consulting firm that helps companies manage young workers, said new managers "might not realize that older and experienced people are looking at you and thinking 'You're young enough to be my kid.'"

Take Brad Friedlander, who at 23 became a manager at Legg Mason and oversaw six people of various ages. Friedlander, who joined Legg's management training program after graduating from George Washington University, said he worked hard, juggled numerous responsibilities and was eager to take on more assignments.

Friedlander said some colleagues were uneasy about his promotion.

"At first, it was an adjustment for them more than for me. They weren't ever expecting to report to someone who was that much younger than they were," said Friedlander, now 24, who left Legg Mason in December to take an executive job at Lightning Golf & Promotions in Owings Mills. "I just did my job and proved to everyone I was capable. Over time, they became comfortable with me in that role."

Jimmy Rosenfield, 45, chief executive officer of Lightning Golf, said he tapped Friedlander for management as the company's chief information officer because of his maturity, intelligence and skills. Although Friedlander was the youngest manager he had hired, Rosenfield said Friedlander's youth wasn't a concern for him or others in the company.

Friedlander, who had interned for the company and worked with other employees, is the go-to guy for technology there, creating electronic databases and implementing other programs to augment the business, Rosenfield said. Friedlander also is learning about the other aspects of the business.

"The more you learn, the more respect you get from your co-workers, which in turn makes it easier to lead or manage. You can't walk in at 23 or 24 years old and expect someone who's 20 years older to have instant respect for you. You have to earn that, and that takes time," Rosenfield said.

The study by the Families and Work Institute suggests that one in five older workers might have problems with their younger bosses. Still, the study also reveals that older workers feel that their younger supervisors are competent, supportive of their success and responsive to their personal and family needs.

Last year, Howard Schwartz, 46, joined Baltimore-based The Asset Store, a firm that sells unwanted properties and equipment and is run by two 20-something executives. It's the first time in Schwartz's career that he reports to managers younger than himself.

Schwartz, director of hotel services, said the age difference hasn't been an issue. What matters is that his opinions and expertise are valued and that his desire for work-life balance is accepted and understood by his younger bosses, Schwartz said.

"It has been a very positive thing because of the energy level, the ambition, the work ethic and the ability to take risks that they demonstrate," Schwartz said of his younger managers.

The two co-founders of the Asset Store, Brad Bondroff, 28, and Dan Shuman, 29, who are the youngest in the company, oversee 15 employees.

Their age is hard to ignore sometimes. In starting their company in 2004, they sought older, experienced workers with a small catch, Bondroff said.

"I think it was our first hire, we were interviewing and the question kind of came up indirectly and the person who we were interviewing, he finally said, 'Are you asking me if I had a problem reporting to somebody half my age?'" Bondroff recalled.

"We were dancing around it, and we said yes. If that's an issue, we need to know that now. We can't let that affect our business," he said.

Nowadays, their focus is all about making their business succeed. "I think it's all driven around what makes good business and commercial sense," Bondroff said. "At the end of the day, it should have very little to do with ego."

Tips on reporting to a young manager:

Don't be insulted. Accept your new boss.

Assess your new boss, but don't test.

If you must talk about the age issue, talk about it once. Then drop it.

Maybe they hired the young upstart to try some new things. Don't resist.

Use your experience and knowledge to help the new boss. But offer your advice in private.

Be great at managing yourself.

Management advice for the young boss:

Remember that you are young. Prove yourself without showing off.

Get to know and learn from each member of your team.

Don't shoot down ideas.

Find at least one wise sage on your team and tap his/her knowledge and experience.

Get results. If your team succeeds, you will gain respect from the team.

Source: Bruce Tulgan of RainmakerThinking Inc.

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