How to Manage Older Workers

By Wim Dodson


Former Newsweek Technology Editor Dan Lyons expected in 2012 that at age 51 he’d be able to land a job in media in the technology sector pretty easily after his employer had cut his job. After all, he’d already interviewed some of the luminaries of Silicon Valley for the magazine. It took nine months of demoralizing interviews, but he eventually landed a job at the tech startup Hubspot in 2013.


Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Hubspot is an online marketing service provider.


Lyons didn’t much appreciate the staff at Hubspot calling him grandpa, though.  The average age at the 11-year old “startup” was 26. He was “their parents’ age,” he says in a video interview on Fortune Magazine. Hired to write content for the online platform, managers half his age were suggesting he write stories entitled, “Old Dogs Learn New Tricks” and “What’s It’s Like to Be an Old Guy Working at Hubspot”.


He makes several points about the environment in the book he wrote about the experience, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start‑Up Bubble”: nearly the entire staff was white (as he himself is) and arrogant: they believed that as 20-something “digital natives” they knew better than “old” people about the world. The book makes for depressing reading; that is, if you’re over-50 in most sectors of the American economy.


What workers younger than 40 years old don’t seem to get is that people older than them don’t feel older than them. Yes, the older set certainly has more professional experience, and, within narrow organizational contexts, a fuller skillset than up-and-comers. They’ve also been “round the block” a few times and been through more turf wars than younger staff can even imagine.


The prejudice younger staff tend to harbor is that they are smarter than their older counterparts and that older compatriots just don’t and won’t “get it”.


Older staff find the myopia of youth in professional settings patronizing. More experienced staff are seasoned enough to know that patronizing people at work stopped being effective in the 1990s. It’s also rude.


So seasoned professionals in subordinate roles tend not to say, “You know, you’re doing this wrong” or “Back in my day … blah blah blah”. They know they’ll lose their precious jobs and perhaps even be sued for speaking that way to anyone.


Generations are Like Foreign Cultures

Most of the young employees thrust into management roles have been raised in the homogeneous suburbs of America: they are vanilla vanilla vanilla in their temperament, worldview, and experience with others. Their exposure to other cultures — even other races — is incredibly narrow if it exists at all. Unfortunately, it’s just this sort of experience that is the key to twenty (and thirty-) somethings effectively managing older staff.


Generations are like foreign cultures. The attitudes, behaviors, rites, rituals and values can be radically different from one age group to the next. The key, then, is to apply the sort of cross-cultural skills you would as if you were engaging in business with someone from, say, Indonesia.


You would not patronize the Indonesian. If you had one ounce of business acumen, you would be a good listener, polite and step forward with an inquiring mind. If you were to be imperious, petulant and aggressively ignorant toward anyone from another culture, you would preclude the arrangement within the first minutes after you’d met.


Dealing with older workers simply requires that you have an open mind, accept that you don’t know it all, and that the older generations with which you’re working just may have something to share that will actually make you look better than you would if you’d tried to “do it yourself”.


Other points that will help younger staff more effectively manage people older than them include:

  • Asking about the experience of older coworkers within business contexts in which you know they’ve been involved;
  • Embracing the diversity of experience and perspectives older workers can share;
  • Save the organization time and money by taking into account the previous experiences of older workers in certain contexts;
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel — even if it is in your image;
  • Show humility … you’re only in that position for a couple years anyway, given the corporate shelf life of most workers nowadays.


And finally, young managers need to seriously consider this point: before you know it, you’ll be the one delicately advising managers younger than yourself how much value you still have to offer.