Young workers reaching for management

More and more employees are reporting to less-experienced, under-35 leaders hired for their fresh ideas and technological skills


Imagine a middle-aged advertising executive reporting to a boss who is half his age.The scenario - featured in a plot in the 2004 movie In Good Company - isn't farfetched.

More than ever, young workers are being hired or promoted as managers earlier in their careers compared with past generations, experts say. The shift is prevalent in part because layoffs and buyouts of more senior workers have pushed 20- and 30-somethings into management jobs. Younger workers also are using their skills at mastering new technologies to move up faster. And increasingly, the old rules of paying dues, climbing the hierarchal corporate ladder and seniority don't always apply.

"Dues-paying has lost its relevance, which means that over time, people are going to think less about whether you've been here long enough to be promoted. It'll be simply about looking at your skills and maturity," said Robert W. Wendover, managing director of the Center for Generational Studies in Colorado. "And that's the advantage for young people."

It's a change that does not sit well with everyone, even though most workers could find themselves facing such a scenario at some point in their careers. Experts say not all older employees and managers feel comfortable - at least initially - working for or hiring a boss who's closer to their children's age. Some of that is due to resentment or worries about the younger manager's lack of experience or maturity to handle the work at hand.

And some young workers are deliberately shunning management jobs in part because they don't want to make serious career commitments, said Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative, a workplace consulting firm in Cincinnati.

Still, workplace consultants say they're seeing more managers under 35 attending management training seminars throughout the country. And young managers at Baltimore-area companies say they bring a strong work ethic, fresh ideas and advanced technology skills to the table. They believe age isn't much of an issue as long as their work matches up.

"We expect to move up the ladder pretty quickly," said Laura Crovo, 27, a public relations account director at MGH, an advertising and public relations firm in Owings Mills. She was recently promoted to the senior management position after spending two years as a mid-level manager.

"It was my goal to come here, grow and learn as much as I could as quickly as possible," said Crovo, who manages six people.

With an aging work force, experts say management ranks could be filled with more young faces.

A 2004 study by New York-based Families and Work Institute found that 71 percent of 254 surveyed workers 58 years and older expect to be managed by significantly younger people. For 1,268 baby boomers, 23 percent said they expect to work with significantly younger managers.

Even as millions of baby boomers reach retirement age, career experts say many plan to work in some capacity. Surveys among baby boomers show that many expect to continue working past retirement age or find second careers in jobs that are less demanding.

"That person will retire but work for someone with more flexible hours and less responsibility," Wendover said. "And the reality is that they may be reporting to someone 30 years their junior."

Lynda McDermott, president of EquiPro International, a leadership development and consulting firm in New York, said the shift is producing interesting relationship dynamics. Young managers always have been called on to supervise their peers and workers as old as their parents. Increasingly, young managers also find themselves overseeing workers who are their grandparents' age.

"There's more multigenerational complexities that these young managers need to manage," said McDermott, who has written about new young managers.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, a consulting firm that helps companies manage young workers, said new managers "might not realize that older and experienced people are looking at you and thinking `You're young enough to be my kid.'"

Take Brad Friedlander, who at 23 became a manager at Legg Mason and oversaw six people of various ages. Friedlander, who joined Legg's management training program after graduating from George Washington University, said he worked hard, juggled numerous responsibilities and was eager to take on more assignments.

Friedlander said some colleagues were uneasy about his promotion.

"At first, it was an adjustment for them more than for me. They weren't ever expecting to report to someone who was that much younger than they were," said Friedlander, now 24, who left Legg Mason in December to take an executive job at Lightning Golf & Promotions in Owings Mills. "I just did my job and proved to everyone I was capable. Over time, they became comfortable with me in that role."

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