About three years ago, Richard Walstrom, 57, started noticing that something had changed where he worked, Best Buy. It wasn't blatant mistreatment...
CHICAGO — About three years ago, Richard Walstrom, 57, started noticing that something had changed where he worked, Best Buy.
It wasn’t blatant mistreatment but a strange feeling of being marginalized after a management shake-up at the consumer-electronics retailer.
“The culture was different,” said Walstrom, an information-technology manager and father of four who was demoted and eventually laid off.
“A lot more party stuff was going on, part of this new, younger mentality of the senior managers. I didn’t give it much thought … but it’s hard to relate when one set of employees is paying for college while the other is buying speedboats.”
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It’s an increasingly common reaction. As baby boomers — that demographic tidal wave born between 1946 and 1965 — hit their 50s in record numbers, these former hotshots are being told more often to move down the bench and make room for the kids.
While the dot-com era ushered in this role reversal in the early 1990s, the pace has accelerated in recent years, with corporations slashing payrolls and removing rungs of the ladder.
Now, Hollywood has acknowledged the passing of the baton with the recent opening of “In Good Company,” starring Dennis Quaid as a past-his-prime ad executive and Topher Grace as his peach-fuzzed boss.
“Aging has been staring boomers in the face quite a long time, they just refuse to admit it,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University. “This just makes it official.”
In much the same way that “The Graduate” heralded boomers’ entry into the workplace almost 40 years ago, “In Good Company” is pointing the way to the exits.
“If you’re in this age group, you’re feeling vulnerable,” Thompson said. “This is a generation that has defined itself by its youth — in fact, it has ‘baby’ in the title — so it’s a rich theme to tap.”
Stereotypes abound on both sides of the age divide, experts say. Generation X-ers — born between 1965 and 1981 — are perceived as not paying their dues, having no respect for experience and even less for loyalty. Seasoned pros are often dismissed as technophobic, inflexible and out of touch with industry trends.
The contentiousness is coming as those ages 20 to 34 in executive positions have surged from 4.8 million in 1994 to almost 8 million, a decade later, according to the Department of Labor.
To former Masters of the Universe who worked Herculean hours, being downgraded after decades of upward mobility can be a bitter pill to swallow.
It wasn’t always this way. Throughout history, an elder carried status, not stigma. At the very least, one earned the right to kick back and ride on the coattails of past conquests, a luxury no longer available in today’s global marketplace.
Moreover, boomers — who overwhelmingly deferred marriage and parenthood for career — know they had better adapt. Unlike earlier generations that were contemplating moves to the Sun Belt at the same age, few 50-somethings have such options today.
Whether they’re paying college tuition for children or watched their investments dwindle in recent years, one-third of all AARP members must work, often reporting to people half their age.
Navigating this psychologically ambiguous terrain can be tricky, said Bill Chafetz, a principal with Deloitte & Touche Consulting.
“Sometimes, people revert to the only model they know: The parent-child relationship. And that’s a huge mistake,” Chafetz said.
Tom Zidar, a vice president at LaSalle Bank in Chicago, is 36 but has been supervising older people for several years and has laid off workers. He advises checking stereotypes at the door.
“It is far more effective to assume nothing,” said Zidar, who was featured in Crain’s Chicago Business’ annual “40 under 40” issue, which recognizes local fast-trackers.
“Instead, start by listening to each other,” he said. “When you do make a decision … it is critical to be open and upfront and communicate what is changing and, more importantly, why.”
Diane Wilson, a Chicago workplace consultant with Grimard Wilson, coaches older clients to expect some “posturing” from newly minted supervisors.
“They may feel intimidated,” she said. “Just keep your own mission in mind and don’t react. The less defensive you are, the easier it is to see possibilities as the world changes around you.”
Of course, some people see age as an asset.
At 35, Josh Silvers is president of Xcel Supply, an Evanston distributor of medical, janitorial and food-service products. He oversees a staff of 25, more than half of whom are older than he is.
“I was green, and I needed to surround myself with experience,” said Silvers, who said his oldest employee is pushing 60 and all his top managers are at least 10 years his senior. “They have wisdom I can learn from; I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”