Managing the Older Workforce

As today’s retirees linger in the workforce, gen-Xers will find themselves in the tricky position of being their managers

MARILYN FRYER IS 73 AND STILL WORKS AS A BOOKKEEPER. She could work from home, but prefers to go to her clients’ offices three days a week for the “social scene” and to “keep up the grooming.” If her body aches with age, she tries not to show it. When everyone is talking about the latest movie or Lady Gaga video, she listens with amusement. After 30 years in the business, she sees no need to retire, and plans to work as long as she still can. It’s an increasingly common scenario, according to the new book Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order. Authors Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli make the case that as life expectancies rise, more and more managers will be supervising people twice their age, starting with the already-lingering baby boomers. “The world has changed,” says Novelli, former CEO of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and a self-described “dedicated older worker” at 69. “Imagine you’re 32 years old and sitting across the desk from somebody who looks like your mother. There will be more older workers than ever, and employers are going to have to value them and help younger people manage them.”

To ease the potential tensions, the authors urge employers to acknowledge both the value of older employees (for training, mentoring and their corporate knowledge) and their workplace needs (flexibility, respect). “This is not rocket science,” Novelli says. “We’re talking about being able to communicate clearly, involving them in decision-making, delegating intelligently and recognizing their contributions and experience.”

This old-fashioned respect-your-elders approach worked for Kevin North when he found himself overseeing an older workforce. He was 30 when he became president and CEO of Toronto-based software company Dyadem. Though the industry generally attracts a young crowd, North says that in the early days, “everyone was older than me,” and he had a few reports nearly 20 years his senior and with 10 years of experience on him. “When you’re younger, you have to prove yourself,” he says. “But you also have to have empathy for your people’s daily work challenges. There are a lot of young managers who don’t do that — young hell-bent visionaries who just want to move past anything that slows them down.”

Such simple tactics can go a long way, says Novelli, because people in their sunset years are less motivated by money or climbing the ladder — they’ve done that. The authors’ research revealed, in fact, that what keeps many seniors at work and even entering new fields is the desire to feel valued, be productive and keep mentally nimble. They want a flexible schedule with fewer hours, but enough to feel that they’re contributing.

It’s an arrangement that can benefit employers, as well. At Deloitte Inc., for example, retired partners are brought back as mentors or part-time advisers on special projects and big accounts. “The idea is to marry the young generation with the experience, institutional knowledge and relationships of the senior partners,” says Heather Stockton, Deloitte’s head of Human Capital Consulting for Canada. “When you bring that combination together, it’s pretty powerful.”

But it isn’t always easy, and sometimes can produce pervasive clashes in approach. Kellie Auld, a human-resources consultant in Kamloops, B.C., who’s approaching 60, quit her job last year because tensions with her roughly 30-year-old co-workers became unbearable. “They’re very bright and tech-savvy; I’m more about building people relationships,” she says. “Their impression was that I was old-school HR, too concerned about people’s feelings. There was a different view of the world.”

These conflicts are understandable and will at times prove insurmountable, says Linda Duxbury, a pioneer in the field of workplace generational dynamics and professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. She has spent years studying generation X, the cohort born between 1961 and 1974 that will be managing these older workers. “The gen-Xers are less than impressed with the boomers, and will see no need to accommodate them,” she says. These up-and-comers view their parents’ generation as having hogged the jobs in the downsizing days of the 1990s, leaving the younger set over-educated, under-employed and cynical.

Cappelli and Novelli, however, argue that employers will need to make bridges over the generational gap or face a looming labour shortage. “If you ignore [boomers],” says Novelli, “you’re ignoring a third of the workforce.”

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