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Boomers, Gen-Xers Compete in Job Market

Age: Postwar group fears lack of high-tech skills. Younger set says elders have lock on management.


Downsized out of three jobs since 1989, Tom Morrison has been fiddling lately with the idea of changing professions.

Thinking public relations might give him a new start, the 48-year-old aerospace engineer checked out a breakfast for industry professionals at the Four Seasons Hotel. But when Morrison got a look at the competition, he felt over the hill.

"It was absolutely incredible," he said. "Eighty-five percent of this audience--which was about 150 people--were easily under the age of 30."

Morrison, who had been searching for a new job for about seven months, is far from the only one worried about a generational divide in the workplace. Both in the job market and at work, baby boomers and Generation Xers are increasingly in competition.

Members of Forty Plus of Southern California, a nonprofit organization that helps retrain unemployed professionals over 40, agree that runaway downsizing has pitted many older workers against younger, lower-paid job applicants.

The dramatic transition from a manufacturing-based economy to one driven by technology has given Gen-Xers, who grew up playing Atari, a leg up on boomers in the horse race for jobs, said Brad Sago, an associate professor at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., who has studied how different generations market themselves.

Career counselors say a majority of new jobs--many in the electrical manufacturing, communications services and information technology fields--require up-to-date technical knowledge.

Many boomers worry that their skills have become obsolete in this environment and that they will be replaced by Gen-Xers, said Vern Bengtson, professor of gerontology at USC.

"The older worker feels they are creeping along on the information superhighway while younger people zoom on by," he said.

Boomers should not only seek retraining to improve their technology skills, experts agree, they should also look to the younger generation for help when stuck at the computer.

For their part, Gen-Xers worry that boomers still have the advantage in the job market. They hold the best-paying, most prestigious positions, young workers complain, making it difficult for anyone else to advance.

"There are so many boomers at the top management level that there's a logjam," said Courtney Moon, a 24-year-old advertising account coordinator in San Diego. "People in those positions are reaching their peak, and they're not really going anywhere."

This "logjam" sparks resentment in Gen-Xers, some of whom are waiting tables because they can't break into jobs they were trained for, said Judy Ernest, executive director of the Boomer Institute, a Cleveland-based organization that compiles information on issues affecting baby boomers.

To make things worse, more boomers are competing directly with younger workers for entry-level jobs. Older workers have borne the brunt of recent corporate layoffs because of their sheer numbers and because they dominate the middle management jobs that have been targeted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of jobs eliminated in the early 1990s alone is staggering: 123,000 at AT&T, 18,000 at Delta Air Lines, 16,800 at Eastman Kodak, to name a few. Meanwhile, 160,000 federal jobs have been eliminated since 1992.

Downsized boomers often have a tough time finding a new job in the same occupation at a similar level of pay, said Yvette Borcia, co-owner of Stern & Associates, a Culver City-based management consulting firm.

Although about 75% of workers interviewed in the Bureau of Labor Statistics study who lost their jobs in the early 1990s had found work by 1994, only about 33% had found a job that paid the same or a higher salary.

"One of the real points of friction is that boomers who have been laid off are trying to reenter the work force and are competing with Gen-Xers for lower-paying entry-level positions," Sago said.

Despite the tensions between boomers and Gen-Xers, experts say there is much they can learn from each other. Boomers, especially those in management roles, can learn how to accept and adapt to change quickly, how to be more entrepreneurial and how to take direction from female managers. Likewise, Gen-Xers can learn from their older counterparts how to take direction and work with a team.

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