Managing the Older Worker: A book review by Bob Morris

Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order
Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli
Harvard Business Review Press (2010)

A thoughtful and thorough examination of “a neglected dimension of diversity”

As is the case of almost every other important business book, this one is research-driven as indicated by the footnotes on Pages 161-179. In it, Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli explain how to prepare for what they characterize as “the new organizational order.” Indeed, Peter Drucker would suggest (and I agree) that much of that order is already in place and all of it will be soon.

Of special interest to me is a role reversal in the workplace that is without precedent. It creates unique challenges to which Cappelli and Novelli refer in this excerpt from their Preface: “To oversimplify, younger managers don’t really know how to manage older workers – and older workers don’t know how to get what they need from their younger managers.” They recommend a different approach, o0ne they explain during the course of their rigorous and insightful examination of what they characterize as of a neglected dimension of diversity.”

They address issues associated with business challenges such as these:

o  The defining (and unique) characteristics of “the older worker phenomenon”
o  Various myths about older workers…and what in fact is true
o  The nature of “new business realities” that must be accommodated
o  The case for older workers
o  How to confront ageism effectively
o  How to helper younger supervisors
o  How to “craft a better deal” for older workers
o  How to make an older workforce “work for you”

Here are three excerpts that are representative of the several dozen passages that caught my eye:

“It is certainly true that older individuals use more health care than their younger colleagues. On the other hand, most employers still offer health-care benefits to employees and their dependents. The health-care costs of an employee, therefore, depend not just on their own health-care but on that of their family.” (Page 40)

“Far and away the biggest concern about older workers, reported by 88 percent of respondents in one survey, was not in fact a problem with older workers themselves but a worry about conflicts in the workplace with younger workers. And the punch line is that despite the overall positive attitudes toward their older workers, one-quarter of employers reported that their organization was reluctant to hire any older workers.” (Page 83)

“Much of the difficulty that older workers have getting hired and then functioning successfully in the workplace appears to center on the relationship with younger supervisors, at the point of hiring and then later when work is being done. The heart of the problem centers on leadership styles that are a particularly poor fit with older workers, an authority-driven approach to supervision. It obviously takes two to have a conflict, so why focus so much attention on the younger supervisor? One reason is that they are the ones initiating and defining the relationship. Even in participatory models of management, they ought to be the ones shaping the terms of the relationship. But we shouldn’t let the older workers off the hook, either.” (Pages 114-115)

My own take on all this can be summed up by three points: First, cross-generational collaboration in any organization will improve the process of answering questions, solving problems, and working together in countless other ways. That will require mutual respect and trust that can only be earned over time but must be protected every day. Also, older workers and their younger supervisors must accept the fact that “it isn’t about them” and be willing to subordinate their preferences to what is best for everyone involved. Finally, perhaps (just perhaps) a multi-generational workforce whose members are — in Cappelli and Novelli’s words — “coming together and working toward a common vision with shared goals” will encourage cross-generational interaction and cooperation (if not collaboration) in other segments of contemporary society.

Posted in

Leave a Comment