When You’re Older Than Your Boss

colleagues in office

Working for a significantly younger boss presents a unique set of challenges. It may seem strange to take direction from someone a few years your junior since many of us believe age and authority go together.

But you’re certainly not the only one in this situation. Organizations are increasingly hiring younger workers to fill leadership roles in both the nonprofit and private sectors, so many professionals are trying to navigate similar, age-related challenges. The good news is that it’s possible to work together without age being a divisive issue.

Ideally, you and your manager will have a collaborative relationship where you learn from one another as colleagues. Here’s how to develop a mutually beneficial partnership.

Showing respect

It’s easy to think a younger worker has less experience, but putting in the time isn’t all that it takes to be a good manager. Your supervisor likely earned the position because they have the right skill set for leadership in your field. Experience matters, but achievements, personality, interests, and career goals matter too.

Give your manager the same trust and respect you’d show a supervisor who was your age or older.

  • Listen when they give instructions.
  • Let them know you welcome any feedback they may have.
  • Make an effort to show you’ve earned new responsibilities; don’t assume you’ll be granted them automatically.

Keep in mind that your boss may feel intimidated by the prospect of supervising an older employee. They may worry that you know more than they do or that you’re waiting for them to make a mistake. There are simple ways to show you value their knowledge.

  • Ask them for advice about problems you encounter.
  • If they do make an error, be gracious and accommodating; resist any urges to gossip about them to coworkers or remind them what they did wrong.

Communicating ideas

Your years of work experience have given you wisdom, and this should absolutely be offered to your supervisor as a resource. Your insights could range from logistical information to methods for handling certain people and situations. If you understand your boss’s problems and can suggest solutions, you’ll quickly become an invaluable member of your supervisor’s team.

Be wary, however, of lecturing, bragging, or condescending to your supervisor. Instead, be sure to frame advice in terms of your own personal learning experience.

  • Instead of saying “This isn’t the way we do things,” or “This won’t work for me,” try saying “I’ve never considered this method before,” or “That’s an innovative idea, and I’m excited to be on board. Do you mind if I share some concerns I have?” or “I see where you’re coming from. May I tell you my perspective?”
  • Instead of saying “Here’s the right way to get the job done,” or “It’s always been this way,” try saying “In my experience, this has been most effective, but I’m open to new options,” or “This reminds me of a previous situation. Here’s what that experience taught me.”

Navigating different work techniques

Different generations grow up with different technology and communication methods. Your boss may prefer a mode of communication you’re not used to, such as texting or using a chat application like Slack or Google chat.

It’s important to have a conversation about expectations in this area. How does your manager want to deliver important information, and how do they expect you to respond? Should you check your email or phone regularly? If a certain method simply doesn’t work for you (for instance, if your personal cell phone can’t access an application your manager wants to use) brainstorm some different methods and find a compromise.

As you adjust to new office technologies, ask questions about anything you don’t understand; learning a new skill is tricky regardless of your age. And as industries change and evolve, you and your boss will both be learning continually on the job.

Thriving as a team

You and your supervisor won’t see eye to eye on everything, but that’s true of any working partnership. It can help to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When your boss proposes an idea you’re tempted to reject, ask yourself “What’s the end goal? How will this support our shared mission?” Think of reasons their choices could have positive outcomes for the organization.

Viewing your relationship as a collaborative one, not a competitive one, may ease any insecurity you feel. The two of you are in different roles because you have different strengths, so take the time to think about your talents, and also consider where your boss excels.

Being older than your supervisor may take some getting used to, but if you’re both committed to the job and able to embrace change, the relationship can be a great one.

***

Have you worked for someone much younger than you, or supervised someone much older? What tips can you add?

Tags: ,

Related Posts

by
Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
What's Better than SMART Goals? Try SMARTIE Goals 5 Strategies for Leading Teams Amid High Turnover

Comments

    • Howling Wolf
    • January 20, 2019
    Reply

    I have a manager who is younger than me but he is also more highly trained, so I respect him at that level. But there are a lot of forces from him and most of the team that are against my success because they see me as a threat.

    • Elizabeth R
    • January 26, 2019
    Reply

    FINALLY – taking on one of the very real age issues that are typical in workplaces. While there are numerous issues that need to be examined and shared, wrapped in this big topic, I find that mostly fluff is being written.

    As a Boomer who has been working since my early 20’s, I bring extensive professional experience (and successes) as a creative and a manager, along with a decent level of technical know-how. Even so, after a career change, I find myself in a low-to-mid management position, often having to keep my mouth shut when I have something worthwhile to contribute, even though I have expertise that’s relevant. Younger assistants I’ve trained and worked alongside, respect & admire me, but the Millennials I work under are often unable or unwilling to truly professionally engage. Find another position? Sure, though easier said than done: in the final round of multiple interviewing, at the end of the day, I’m competing with people who are 20-30 years my junior.

    I think it’s a subject that sorely needs exploration and dialogue. I suspect that HR and upper Management might more positively weigh the strengths of “older applicants,” if this conversation was really being had. There is a substantial population of talented people out there, who happen to be over 50 and are underemployed or not employed at all.

      • Amy Bergen
      • January 29, 2019
      Reply

      Hi Elizabeth,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree this is an important conversation – generation gaps in the office present challenges, and not just for younger workers.

    • Rachel Sommer
    • January 27, 2019
    Reply

    My boss is younger than I but has a FAR higher social intelligence quotient. She started as parallel to me, and over the course of five years, moved up to Senior Director. I’ve supported her promotions every step of the way.
    My vocation is high-level office support; hers is management. We partner very well.

      • Amy Bergen
      • January 29, 2019
      Reply

      Hi Rachel,
      It sounds like you’re both playing to your strengths; this is ideal!

  1. Reply

    Thank u so much for your written article. It does happened I have a younger person leading a mixture of seniors and others older than herself. I was wondering how to handle this situation because she is good at what she does. Now I am more wiser because of your article in the art of acceptance.

      • Amy Bergen
      • January 29, 2019
      Reply

      Hi Adele,
      Glad to be of help!

    • Lynn Koehler
    • January 28, 2019
    Reply

    This is great initial insight, and a conversation needs to be continued. Could this be a topic at an idealist day?

    1. Reply

      Hi Lynn, This is Abby at Idealist. I love the idea of having some of these conversations continued during an Idealist Day. Where are you? We could organize something in-person, or maybe even online on a Zoom meeting . We would love to work with you on it. Want to email us at act@idealist.org. Just mention that you talked to me here. 🙂

    • F
    • January 30, 2019
    Reply

    I’m twenty -one years older than my supervisor (56 and 35.) She pays lip service to respecting what my experience brings, but it’s condescending. I pretend to buy it, because I still need to work, and the older I get, the harder it is to get hired. My spouse is in a similar situation. We play the game as best we can, and strive to survive in a world that doesn’t, truly, value us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

31 shares