Until recently, Stephen Schechter had spent his 37-year career reporting to bosses older than himself. For six years, he even enjoyed the luxury of answering only to himself as owner of a small public-relations agency. So it came as something of a surprise a year ago when Mr. Schechter accepted a position as vice president of 5W Public Relations in New York.
His new boss, chief executive Ronn Torossian, is young enough to be his son.
"This is dramatic," Schechter says of the role reversal. "It's interesting, exciting, and challenging."
"Steve is older than my mom and my dad," adds Mr. Torossian. "He has a lot of years of experience that I don't have."
Welcome to the 21st century version of the generation gap. As older Americans delay retirement or return to the labor force, lured by the need for a paycheck or the desire for productive activity, they're increasingly likely to work for someone younger. A coming shortage of skilled labor will push employers to hire 5.3 million older workers by 2010 and 14 million by 2020, according to the National Commission for Employment Policy.
Already these new workplace relationships, casting youth and maturity in new roles, are creating a mini-industry of generational researchers and business consultants to help companies manage change. They're even the theme of a new movie, "In Good Company," starring Dennis Quaid as a middle-aged ad executive faced with a new boss nearly half his age.
No one pretends these topsy-turvy arrangements are always easy. Younger bosses may harbor stereotypes that older employees resist change. Older workers may regard their younger superiors as arrogant or less loyal to the company.
For Schechter and Torossian, their 30-year age difference became part of the discussion during Schechter's job interview. "He brought it up," says Torossian, who considers Schechter's age an advantage. "As a young entrepreneur, I need to have smart, successful people around me who can give a variety of insights regardless of their age."
Schechter says his initial challenges included learning to work within the boundaries Torossian has set for the agency and the staff, and being able to fit in with young colleagues. "I'm learning a lot from him and from the younger people here," he adds. "If anything, it's really energized me and made me feel younger."
Not everyone has such smooth sailing. Rose Jonas, an organizational consultant in St. Louis, is working with two female clients - a 26-year-old boss and her 52-year-old subordinate. "The younger one doesn't know how to manage, and the executive assistant has an MBA and an attitude about taking work from a younger person." Both women are good at their jobs.
Ms. Jonas is trying to teach the manager to be less rigidly authoritative. Even so, she thinks the older woman will eventually leave, "blaming all the way."
To prevent such situations, consultants emphasize the need to understand each age group: the Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1981, who are now managers, and the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, who work for them.
"Each generation experienced very different formative years, and as a result brings very different values to the American workplace," says Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative, business consultants in Cincinnati.
Baby boomers, Mr. Underwood notes, are a generation that has defined itself by work. "They made the 60-hour workweek normal," he says. "They took work calls at home and worked on weekends."
In sharp contrast, he continues, Generation X has grown up with a distrust of big business, big government, and older people in general. "Many Xers in their childhood saw their workaholic parents suffer from fatigue, illness, substance abuse, and divorce. So Xers entered their career years less loyal to the company and more determined to work a reasonable workday and leave the office sharply at 5."
In addition, boomers are by nature an assertive, aggressive, take-control generation, Underwood says. Generation Xers are much less assertive and aggressive within the workplace.
Underwood regards this as an important difference that older workers must recognize in younger bosses. "It looms as a very significant challenge for younger managers to effectively manage their older subordinates. From one manager to the next, it might or might not work."
He frames it as an either/or challenge. "Either be sensitive to each generation's strengths and weaknesses and flourish as a result of them, or don't be sensitive and flounder."
To help companies flourish in these situations, Amy Glass teaches a half-day seminar called "Managing the Generations." She finds fear a recurring theme for both generations. Younger managers are afraid they won't be respected and won't be able to lead their subordinates. Older employees express concern that their younger boss will view them as old and won't value their experience.
"Some boomers are resistant to technology," says Ms. Glass, a senior facilitator with Brody Communications in Jenkintown, Pa. "They just want to do what they've always done." She emphasizes the importance of being receptive to change and willing to adapt.
Tita Beal, a writer in New York, spent a year working for a 26-year-old marketing manager and her staff, all in their 20s. Her secret: Humility and receptivity go a long way toward establishing good relationships with younger bosses. "I made sure I showed respect and turned requested work around extremely fast and well," Ms. Beal says. That approach succeeded. The marketing manager offered her a full-time position at a major financial-trading firm.
She cautions older workers not to assume that a young boss is less experienced. "They may have new skills and different experience that the older worker doesn't have," she says.
Beal finds a few other measures help, too. "I keep henna in my hair and my eyes perky so 20- and 30-something Web designers and training managers hire me for consulting projects," she says. She doesn't mind fibbing about her age and sprinkling her conversation with the occasional "Hey" or "Yo." But, she adds, "I don't think it's necessary to act hip. Younger workers know we're not."
Whatever the age difference, workplace experts recommend basic principles of good management: A supervisor needs to be fair and consistent, convey clear and reasonable expectations, and offer regular feedback.
Yet feedback and coaching can be difficult when generational authority is reversed. "Older workers don't always want to be coached by someone they perceive as being the age of their kids or their grandchild," says Lynne Lancaster, co-founder of BridgeWorks, a generational consulting firm in Sonoma, Calif. "Often the younger ones don't want to do that coaching. They're intimidated or uncomfortable. They feel it's disrespectful. It disempowers the younger manager."
To help a younger boss engage older subordinates, Ms. Lancaster recommends asking their advice. "Say, 'I'm stuck. We're having a problem with this customer. What's your experience been?' They've probably seen that situation 800 times."
Doing that, she adds, draws on their expertise. "Younger bosses forget to do that. They're so worried about proving what they know, but you get a lot further letting others show what they know."
She cautions against making problems personal. "Instead of saying, 'Bob, you've really been slow to learn the new computer system, you're the slowest one,' which is very personal, tie it to the results. Say, 'We need every teller in the bank to be equally effective on this system. Effectiveness has to be 90 percent or higher.' "
Focusing on results also helps to avoid litigation. "You don't want to imply that someone is failing to do something because they're old," Lancaster says. "It's not only ageist and rude, but it can also precipitate a lawsuit."
Age is not an issue for John Voelcker, director of product management for an Internet company in New York. He is in his mid-40s. His boss is 12 years younger.
"I'll take a younger boss any day over a boss with deep insecurities, or a boss who thinks she has to prove her power," Mr. Voelcker says. He thinks older worker/ younger boss relationships may be easier in high-tech firms, where the management style is often less hierarchical and more like a "participatory democracy."
Attitudes like Voelcker's may become common as generational shifts proliferate. For Torossian, too, the new hierarchies pose few problems. "We don't hire by age," he says. "We hire by capabilities."
Schechter is also enthusiastic about their working arrangement. "It's a great opportunity for people who are a little older to stay current," he says. "If they can work for someone who is a good deal younger but has the wisdom to accept the experience that a more senior person brings to the table, it's a terrific opportunity for both parties."