6 Tips for Working With a Younger Boss

Mature business woman listens to her younger boss as they review a report.
••• Ezra Bailey / Getty Images

In theory, we all start out in entry-level jobs and then, move our way up. Our path should be steady and sure, which means that our bosses are older than we are, and we are older than our direct reports. That's how we think it should work, but life rarely goes in straight diagonals.

Some people do keep rising, while others take time off for illness, family, or because their boss kicked them to the curb. Sometimes you go sideways. Some people jump six levels at a time. The result is that sometimes your boss is younger than you.

Sometimes, a lot younger. What happens when you are old enough to be your manager's mother, or worse, grandmother? It's not always smooth sailing. There are a lot of feelings you need to work out.

It isn't a theoretical issue— as Millennials hit the workforce, some will move into management roles where they will supervise people who are considerably older than they are. When you're the older worker, how do you handle working for someone who is not only much younger but may have a lot less experience? 

Tips for Working With a Younger Manager

Watch Your Body Language

Your less experienced boss may make suggestions that you're 99 percent sure won't work. Resist the urge to roll your eyes. It's annoying when your kids do it, and it's annoying when you do it. You may be right, but you need to keep your body language in check. You can bring up objections (see below), but how you deliver the objections is critical.

Watch Your Language

Knock the following phrases out of your work repertoire:

  • When I was your age.
  • We used to do it this way.
  • I've been doing this since before you were born.
  • After you've been doing this as long as I have, you'll see what I mean.

And anything similar. You don't want to draw attention to the age differences, and you don't want to act like you're superior because you're older. You may be superior. Your boss is still the boss.

Assume Your Boss is the Right Person for the Job

Even if you don't have more work experience, you have more life experience. That doesn't mean that your Millennial boss isn't the right person for the job of the boss. She may well have the knowledge and experience that management needed and wanted to hire.

She may have management skills that other people don't have. Some people are good at one thing, and some are good at other things.

When your boss makes changes, don't resist the change. Don't push back unless you have really solid reasons. (We've never done it that way before, is not a solid reason.) If you have a solid reason, take it to your boss and present your case. That's what you would do if your boss were older than you. If she says absolutely not, then support her. She's the boss, and she'll take the fall if it was a stupid idea.

Keep It Professional

You have a lot of life experience, as well as professional experience. Your 20-something boss is in the process of going through things like dating, new babies, and general relationship drama that you are long, long past. Resist the urge to help her out with that stuff. She has parents she can go to for adult advice.

Additionally, don't let yourself fall into the role of department mother or father. Sometimes this can happen when there are one or two baby boomers in a group of Millennials. Some even start calling their older coworker mom. It's endearing, and it's also career suicide for you.

Nobody gives the good projects to the mom. Moms are there to bring cookies (don't do it) and give advice (Advice on a project? Good. Advice on they guy she's dating? Bad.) You are all professionals, so please act like it.

You Haven't Earned any Special Privileges

This pops up in organizations where the older workers are long-term employees of the company. They've earned the right to come in late, or get the first pick on vacation time. Maybe first vacation pick is company policy, but your boss gets to determine that if it's not.

If your boss wants you to have a flexible schedule great! And by all means, negotiate it. You've earned it if you can point to your stellar work record. You haven't earned it by your longevity alone.

Don't Try to Be Cool

If you're naturally cool - awesome - but don't try to act like a 25-year-old when you're 45. It comes across as unprofessional and silly. Sure, that may be ageist, and you can threaten to sue, but we all live in the real world in which people are expected to mature as they get older.

There are different expectations for different people. As long as it doesn't affect your performance rating or pay, let it go.

Remember, age doesn't really matter once you hit adulthood. Don't panic if your new boss is a lot younger than you are. Just do your best at your job, and things will go well.