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Easing Generation Gap Challenges of the Workplace

November 27, 1991|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marge McGuire, a silver-haired 59-year-old, works for a man young enough to be her son, but she never gives her boss advice or straightens his tie or bakes him cookies.

"I don't get mothered by Marge," says 40-year-old David Schulman, a Fullerton attorney who hired McGuire as his full-time secretary about nine months ago.

Both say they've never felt awkward in a working relationship that others--particularly seniors with big egos or young bosses with deep insecurities--might find acutely uncomfortable.

"Age isn't the issue--it's getting the project out," Schulman says. "Marge has the skills to do the job."

McGuire adds: "Dave always provides me with clear instructions and does so graciously. Therefore, I take his instructions in like manner and do not resent the fact that he's the one giving and I'm the one taking, even though I'm old enough to be his mom."

But not everyone would feel comfortable taking orders from someone a generation younger.

Just imagine how one of the best-known curmudgeons in TV history, Archie Bunker, would have dealt with a young boss. If Norman Lear had written an "All in the Family" episode on the subject, hard-nosed Archie would no doubt have exploded when he learned that he had to report to some punk half his age.

The new boss probably would have seen Archie as a stereotypical old-timer--slow, rigid and wary of new technology.

Archie's long-suffering wife, Edith, might have gently suggested inviting the boss to dinner to get to know him better.

And finally, after a lot of bluster at the dinner table, Archie and his boss might have grudgingly acknowledged that not only would they get along better, but also learn something from each other, if they let go of their stereotypes about age.

An increasing number of bosses and workers may be challenged to do just that as the population ages and more seniors decide--for emotional as well as economic reasons--to remain in the work force after they turn 65.

Van Arsdale France, a 79-year-old employee training consultant who has happily reported to many much younger bosses, recently devoted an entire issue of his periodic newsletter, "The Working Seniors," to the subject of how older workers and younger bosses get along.

Among those he interviewed was one young fast-food supervisor who said, "Giving orders to an older worker is sort of like telling my grandma to clear off the table."

But, France said in an interview, many older workers and younger bosses are able to establish highly professional working relationships once they start treating each other as equals.

France, who started a 35-year career with Walt Disney Attractions by creating Disneyland's first employee training program, noted that he has made the following pact with one much younger person for whom he does consulting work: "He won't hold doors for me and say, 'Age before beauty,' and I won't talk about 'the good old days' or call him 'son.' Nor will he, under pain of death, call me 'old-timer.' "

France, a Santa Ana Heights resident whose newsletter encourages older workers to stay in the job market, stresses that it's particularly important for his contemporaries to avoid telling their young bosses old jokes--and to spend twice as much time listening as talking.

"Young bosses don't give a damn about the Great Depression or World War II," he says.

"There will always be a lot of 30-year-old department heads who won't hire someone who reminds them of their father or mother," observes Jean Pond, director of Adult Careers Inc. in Irvine.

Pond--who is in her early 70s and, like France, has no interest in retirement--helps older workers find jobs and has given many speeches urging employers to keep an open mind when evaluating senior applicants.

"There's just as much variety in older people as there is in younger people, but young people have a tendency to lump us all together," she says.

For example, she notes, employers shouldn't assume that an older worker who once held a top management position would be unhappy starting--or even staying--at a lower level.

"Many are willing to do something much less stressful than they did before," Pond explains. "They're interested in having personal value, in being productive, in keeping busy. And they can add stability to departments where there's a lot of coming and going among younger workers."

The young bosses who have had positive older role models in their personal lives tend to react best to senior workers, Pond notes. With the right attitude, she says, the older worker and the younger boss can bridge the generation gap--and even use it to their advantage.

"If young bosses will take advantage of the skill and experience that's being offered to them, it's only going to profit them," she says. "And older workers can learn to be more contemporary and sharpen their skills."

David Schulman says he was impressed by Marge McGuire's eagerness to learn, which she demonstrated as a temporary worker before she was hired full time.

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