5 ways you can help younger managers view older workers differently

There is an explosion happening all around us.  We are getting grayer as a society - much grayer.   As a result, organizations are faced with a diversity-related challenge.   Younger managers, on a much broader level than ever before, are finding themselves in the position of having to supervise older subordinates. 

Early on in my career, I found myself in a similar position.   As a very young, first-time manager, I found myself with subordinates who were considerably older than me.   To be honest, I didn't think much of it.   A few months after becoming a manager, an employee from another department approached me and indicated that she had seen an employee of mine in the ladies room.   She was stuffing a bottle of alcohol into her purse.  I found myself on the doorstep of human resources shortly after hearing the news.

HR's advice to me was, of course, to counsel her.  This woman was, to me at the age of 22, "old."   She was in her 50s.   As I headed back to my office to prepare for the counseling, it hit me.  I was supervising my mother, and I didn't like it.   How would I sit across from someone I was raised to always respect, based on age alone, and now deliver a counseling?   I was horrified.

My experience is not unlike what so many young managers are facing today.  The population of older workers is exploding.   Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage increase in employment for those age 65 and older for the period of 1997 through 2007 was over 100 percent.   If you parse that group down further, you'll find that the number of women 65 and older grew 147 percent.    What is even more remarkable is the fact more of these older workers are engaged in full-time work, as opposed to part-time work.  Prior to 2001, this wasn't the case; however, over the last decade, the trend has continued with more older workers putting in a lot of hours.

Let's discuss the term "old."   What does "old" mean?   When you're 40, "old" may be someone in their 80s.   A person in their 30s may view a 65 year old as being old.   But a person in their 20s, likely believes someone in their 40s and 50s are, at the very least, getting up their in age.   And therein lies our challenge.   If organizations are placing younger people in management roles in which they supervise middle-age workers, human resources departments have a duty to provide these managers with the tools and knowledge to overcome biases and get them to the point where they view older workers as a great opportunity for their departments to flourish.

The Association of Executive Search Consultants asked people at what age they believe age discrimination becomes apparent to them.   They found that 17% believed it was apparent at age 40, while 38% responded it was at age 50, and another 25% at age 55.   If a young manager views someone in their 40s and 50s as being old and that age group clearly feels age discrimination is apparent at that same age, there is cause for concern.  You see, a young manager isn't going to tell the recruiter in human resources that they don't want to hire an older worker simply because they are old.  Having said that, there is likely a mind process going on in their heads leading them to the same result.   A "now hiring" shingle on your business has morphed itself into a "not hiring" sign for older workers.

So, what is it that these managers are thinking about?  For starters, they probably get concerned when a seasoned candidate sits down to interview and they have 20+ years of experience noted on their resume.  This can be very intimidating to younger people.   Many times, these candidates get the "Heisman" (stiff arm) because the manager doesn't want someone to make them look bad.   Another thought they may have is this individual is going to be too set in their ways and will be more of a challenge than a help to them.  You see, there are biases that enter our minds - these natural tendencies to lump groups of people into boxes many times based on negative and unsubstantiated beliefs.

Here are five ways you can help younger managers view older workers differently:

  1. It's not about the process, it's about the outcome.   Do you really need to worry about how they got from A to Z as long as they got to the Z you wanted?  Give these workers the flexibility to tap into their years of experience to get the job done.
  2. Communicate and then communicate some more.  Don't shy away from dialogue.  There is a natural tendency to just let older workers be and not to engage them.  This is a huge mistake.  These workers are there because they want to understand the big picture, how they contribute, and to know what they are doing means something.
  3. Let them share their knowledge.   This group is perfect for mentoring.  What a better way to establish mutual respect, engage them, and show that you respect their experience?   Allow them to impart their knowledge to others.   Even consider them for reverse mentoring (e.g., training managers)
  4. You don't have to be the boss.   I made this mistake in a very big way when I first moved into management.   Everyone knows you are the manager, you don't have to prove that point in every move you make.   "Team" with your employees and ensure they know that you are willing to work shoulder to shoulder with them.
  5. Train them.   You can teach an old dog new tricks.  Unfortunately, older people in the workforce are quickly discounted as being incapable of learning, so training isn't considered.
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