My boss, the kid

Coping with age gaps at the office.

Dennis Quaid isn't very familiar with the early work of Topher Grace. But the Hollywood vet didn't mind working with the star of TV's That '70s Show on the set of In Good Company — the 2004 movie about a 50-something exec who suddenly finds himself reporting to a corporate pup. Grace has talent, and that's all it apparently took for the older actor to see his less experienced co-star as an equal. Quaid, of course, doesn't need to work, which is why he'll never know the movie was based on a true story — or at least one about to be real enough for millions of baby boomers.

If tradition holds, the Leave It to Beaver generation will begin retiring in droves once they starting hitting 65 in 2011. And, since boomers dominate the workforce, employment experts are predicting a crippling exodus of experience. “The [next generation of managers] is better educated and tech-savvy,” but it lacks well-developed leadership skills, warns Colleen Moorehead, CEO of Nexient Learning Inc., a corporate training outfit based in Sydney, N.S. The best way to overcome that deficit, she says, is serious mentoring and — no surprise — training programs.

Sounds easy enough, but getting boomers to agree could be difficult. After all, age differences tend to create inefficiencies and tension between generations, according to HR professionals Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton, co-authors of Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More. And those differences will get worse as the younger crowd storms the corner office. Why? Simple. Many boomers can afford to retire. And while the ones who stick around will probably find it a sellers' market, they'll still likely drop down the corporate ladder. That'll be tough on their psyches, because Gravett insists it's the older folks who sport the largest chips on their shoulders when it comes to working with other generations.

If boomers want to be productive while reporting to kids who think Elvis was born fat, Gravett and Throckmorton suggest they accept the new terms of office life. That means mastering communications technologies, including IM (look it up), and expecting no credit for dues paid. Boomers will also need to accept limited face time with the boss. But they shouldn't read anything into their new superiors being absent. As Gravett and Throckmorton point out, gen X and gen Y often actually work when “working from home.” They truly are different beasts.