It’s well documented that the workforce is “greying” and getting older. In the UK, it’s estimated a third of workers will be older than 50 by 2020.
This poses a range of challenges for employers, from managing the health needs of these older workers, to how to retain and motivate a workforce that has very different priorities and expectations of work. Moreover, the UK HR body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, has argued it is a challenge many employers appear to be woefully ill-prepared for.
At a more personal level, this shifting workplace demographic means it’s becoming increasingly likely that at some point in your career, you’ll find yourself being managed and supervised by someone with fewer years on their CV than you. With that in mind, here are four ways to deal with a boss who’s younger than you:
1. Recognise they’re your boss for a reason
More cruelly, this might be entitled “get over yourself”. You may as an older worker have a greater range of life skills to call upon, but it’s vital you don’t mentally write off a younger manager just because of when they were born.
You may know your job, and they may well come in with new ideas and initiatives that at times feel uncomfortable. But, assuming an air of knowing weariness, or even a sceptically raised eyebrow, is not going to do you any favours. Also recognise that people much more senior have seen something in this person’s managerial abilities, so go with it.
The difficulty here, of course, is if you feel you’re the one who was supposed to have been promoted. This scenario is never easy, for manager or employee alike. You’ll need to ask yourself some hard questions as to why it was you were overlooked. It may well have been favouritism or age discrimination, but it could just as easily have been because of the attitude you’ve been giving off or that you lack certain specific skills. Either way, you essentially have two choices: stay or go. Even if you do now begin casting around for new opportunities, if you’re staying, you’ll need swiftly to move to point two.
2. Be unfailingly positive
This, of course, stands to reason in any manager/employee relationship. But it’s even more the case if your boss is younger than you. Even the best-prepared manager is likely to feel nervous about the prospect of ordering around someone who could be their parent. So make it easy for them. Show you’re “on side” by being enthusiastic, positive and open to their direction (even if you do secretly feel you have heard it all before).
Remember too that helping the boss do their job is not about helping the boss to do their job, but doing your job well. If you recognise a large part of your role is making your boss look great and then (assuming your boss is not a selfish, ego-maniac) basking in the team’s reflected glory, you’re already on the way to a positive working relationship. Conversely, flouncing around or flaunting your years of experience or, even worse, going over your boss’s head is a sure-fire way to destroy this relationship.
Equally, trying to “mother” (whether you’re a man or a woman) a younger manager is probably a recipe for disaster. You won’t be thanked. And never utter the immortal phrase, “when I was your age”.
3. Show a willingness to learn
Age-based stereotyping can be the death-knell of any younger manager/old employee dynamic. And don’t forget it can cut both ways. Just because your boss is a Generation Y “millennial”, don’t assume they’re going to be some sort of social media whiz. Similarly, you need to show your boss you’re not a technophobic dinosaur – or worse, reluctant to embrace new thinking or new ways of working.
To an extent, this comes back to point two. Go out of your way to show your boss you’re enthusiastic, willing and indeed keen to embrace new horizons, technologies and processes. It’s also important to be prepared to show flexibility. So if your new boss prefers instant messaging or texts over email, embrace it.
If you don’t feel knowledgeable or comfortable with new technology, it can be a good idea to get a (trusted and discreet) younger colleague to take you under their wing and “reverse mentor” you. But you have to go into it genuinely wanting to learn. Be visible and proactive about signing up to any training or learning that comes your way and/or offer to take on new projects.
4. Be authentic
Any good boss will want to stamp their mark and authority on their team. They will inevitably have a certain style and persona. But if you’re older, it’s not going to help anyone – least of all you – if you start trying to adopt artificially “youthful” mannerisms, speech or clothing to ingratiate yourself. It’s unlikely to impress – even if your manager does act, speak or dress that way – and it’ll probably just make you look silly.
Finally, it’s a good idea very deliberately in your own mind to acknowledge your boss’s strengths. Once you’ve done that, it’ll be much easier – and feel a much more positive process – to look at your own skills and experience. And from there, you can work out how the two of you can complement each other to develop into an even more effective team. You never know, you might even begin to enjoy and respect being led by a rising star.