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 than you. 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 proliferate in 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 a younger boss who is not only much younger than you but may have a lot less experience working?
Tips for Working With a Younger Manager
Watch Your Body Language
Your less experienced boss may make suggestions that you're 99% sure won't work. Resist the urge to roll your eyes. It's annoying when your kids do it, and it's even more 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 to working well with your younger boss.
Watch Your Language
Start by knocking phrases like the following out of your work repertoire:
- When I was your age.
- We used to do it this way.
- You may not have experienced this, but (fill in the blank).
- 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 or your ideas are superior because you're older. You may be superior. Your younger boss is still the manager.
Assume Your Boss is the Right Person for the Job
Even if you don't have more work experience, you have more life experience. But, that doesn't mean that your Millennial boss isn't the right person for the job of the boss. He or she may well have the knowledge and experience that management needed and wanted to hire.
They 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 the manager says absolutely not, then support the decision. He or she is the boss and will take the fall if it turns out to be a bad decision.
Keep Interactions 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 them out with that stuff. They have parents they can go to when they are looking 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 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 the 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 the 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 and history of contributions. You may have a case if your contributions improve productivity, quality, or create cost savings. You haven't earned special privileges 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 you live in the real world in which people are expected to mature as they get older.
Different expectations are in place for different people. As long as they don't affect your performance rating or paycheck, let them go.
The Bottom Line
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, follow these recommendations and your professional work life will go well.