Originally created 08/21/05

Bridging the age gap



DALLAS - Visitors to Starwood Montessori School in Frisco, Texas, might mistake 27-year-old Anita Khandpur for one of its energetic, young teachers.

But her youthful appearance belies her credentials. Ms. Khandpur is the entrepreneur who founded the school five years ago and now directs its 40-member staff and 300 students.

"The hardest thing about working with so many people and being so young is that you always need to prove yourself," she said. "In my mind, I'm 40."

An axiom of business has been that authority comes with age. But that's changing.

Employees too young for wrinkles or midlife bulges are joining the management ranks and supervising workers who were born decades before them.

Demographics and cost-cutting are at the heart of the role reversal.

As the first of 76 million baby boomers leave the work force, either because they retire or are laid off in favor of younger and cheaper employees, businesses are beginning to stem the brain drain by grooming younger workers for management.

"Demographic changes are the biggest employee-relations issue today, and generational issues are very high on the list," said Keith Greene, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Experts say workplace conflict is almost unavoidable.

Yet few companies are coaching younger bosses on managing older workers, said Mel Fugate, an assistant professor of management at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.

"They're horribly behind on this," Mr. Fugate said. "Working for someone younger will become quite common. The trends are clear."

Experts say some companies shy away from the topic out of concern they'll appear to be discriminating based on age. Other businesses don't see a need yet for formal training programs.

Terry Howard, Texas Instruments' diversity director, said he sees "more evidence" of younger bosses managing older workers but that it's not a pressing issue at the company.

THE CONFLICT

- Baby boomers say Generation Xers: Aren't loyal; have no work ethic; aren't committed; are self-centered; have no respect.

- Xers say boomers: Are too political; don't practice what they preach; are workaholics; need validation; are self-righteous.


What's the solution?

- Xers should: Show respect for boomers' experience; take some time and get to know boomers as people; call boomers by name and check in with them ("How was your ski trip?"); choose face-to-face conversation when possible.

- Boomers should: Get to the point (Xers prefer a straightforward approach); avoid cliche and hyperbole; use e-mail when appropriate.


Source: Claire Raines Associates