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When older worker and younger boss collide

The summer before 68-year-old Kay McGurty retired, she was introduced to her new supervisor, a man young enough to be her grandson.

"He has no socks on," she reported to her fellow clerks in the county courthouse building, mostly women of similar vintage. "He's going to be our boss, and he has no socks on."

Another wunderkind, 26-year-old Jeffrey Zucker, executive producer of NBC-TV's Today, says he "doesn't even own a suit."

No socks, no suit: Does this perturb an older worker because it signals changing generational lifestyles, or because it's a visible reminder that a younger generation is running the show? Probably the latter, says management analyst and author Peter F. Drucker, a long-time guru for elite denizens of the executive suite. Drucker predicts that the major conflicts in the workplace will no longer be between management and labor, but between young and old in an "age-heavy" society.

Hard economic times intensify this struggle. Nearly 75,000 MBAs come out each year, with new management theories and style. The young "resent the old people who are where they want to be; the old people resent the young who want to push them out," notes Arnold Brown of the Manhattan-based firm, Weiner, Edrich, Brown, management consultants.

Beset by mergers and takeovers, restructuring and recession, more than half the nation's top 1,200 companies have sought to ease out senior employees, mostly by way of buyouts, pension "sweeteners" or "golden handshakes," according to a survey by the American Management Association.

Those who resist the tempting offers may find themselves reassigned to what the Japanese (whose culture values lifetime employment) call a "window watcher" job supervised by a seemingly unsympathetic boss half their age.

A survey by her firm showed most employees give bosses low marks in "sensitivity," says Martha Sherwood, a psychologist and senior consultant in the New York office of the Wyatt Co., a human resources consulting firm. The older worker, she says, sees the young supervisor as "making decisions based on book learning as opposed to experience in the trenches."

The split widens even farther when previous roles are reversed. This happened to sixtyish Evelyn Wolf, who trains literacy volunteers in the Queens Library, when a young woman she had trained became her boss: "I just thought, who is this kid to be telling me what to do?" she recalls.

Here are some strategies offered by human resource consultants for what older workers can do to get along with the young boss:

Don't mother the boss. Some older workers might seek to make points (and salve their own egos) by mothering the boss, but "that's the worst thing you can do," says Joyce Brothers, the psychologist. It causes both to "fall back into old unresolved conflicts: The boss pins the faults of his parents on the older worker; older workers pin their children's faults on the boss."

It's a dirty job; be glad you're not doing it. Mitchell Marks, a 36-year-old psychologist in the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer Inc., human resources consultants, advises older people to try to understand the pressures on today's young managers. Middle managers, Marks points out, "have taken a disproportionate hit."

Women need to support other women. Women, many of whom return to the workplace after years of child-raising, cluster in traditionally female "pink collar" jobs, such as sales or services, where pension coverage is notoriously low, the report notes.

The returnee is also likely to find herself working for another woman 20 or more years her junior. And she's likely to resent the younger woman boss more than she would a younger man, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Don't be intimidated. On the other hand, it may be a case of the younger boss treating the older woman badly, says Sharon Kinsella, who helps operate a hotline for 9 to 5, (800) 522-0925.

Kinsella's advice: "Tell the young boss, "I'm only here to do my job, and to help you do your job. Let's see if we can work this out.'

" If that doesn't work, and you continue to be singled out, you may have a case of age discrimination.

Learn the new tricks. The problem is not strictly a matter of gender, says Sherwood, of The Wyatt Co. One of the more humiliating experiences for longtime employees is to get a negative performance review from a "kid" who has just come on board. Remember the young manager may just have a communication problem. However, Sherwood advises the older worker to avoid getting stuck in a rut: "Learn the new technology. You may prefer the paper-and-pencil method, but you should take advantage of every opportunity to pick up computer skills." These skills will come in handy after you retire.

Put mind over money. You may no longer look forward to promotion or salary increases _ you're probably at the top of your salary scale now _ "but there are other non-monetary, psychic satisfactions, a feeling that you're making a contribution to the company," says Martin Sicker, director of the Worker Equity Department for the American Association for Retired Persons in Washington.

Older workers should find a niche where they can best contribute from their long experience and ideas.

And many companies, he says, have come to regret their zeal in squeezing out senior employees.

After a research study, the Aetna Life and Casualty Co. concluded that replacing a worker cost "93 percent of the salary of the worker who has left, above and beyond the salary of the new person," said Sherry Herchenroether, quality assurance manager.

She said the company has no early retirement incentives. "We don't feel it's wise to let skilled people walk out the door, no matter what their age."