“My boss is younger than me” isn’t the phrase it used to be.
Perhaps in the past it was a signal that you’d failed to rise through the ranks or that it was time to retire. But today, slipping that detail into a conversation is just the reality of our workforce. The baby boomer generation—ages 51 to 69 or so—is retiring later and working longer. As far as numbers go, the millennial generation—roughly ages 17 to 36, depending on your parameters—represents the single largest demographic in the American workforce. Based on these trends, it’s highly likely that you’d have a younger boss—even if you’re a millennial.
A lot of tension in the workplace comes from generational gaps and ill-advised management. This pairing creates all kinds of resentment when the older, experienced worker gets passed over for a promotion in favor of some hot-shot kid with less managerial experience.
But generational gap management looks—and feels—very different for Office Ninjas. For example, your much younger boss usually isn’t taking your job, but rather, your former boss’s job. Hopefully, the new dynamic isn’t because you’ve been passed over for a promotion. Still, managing an age gap can be awkward, confusing, and difficult to navigate when a younger leader takes the reins.
So what’s a Ninja to do? Here are four starting points to navigate the age difference between you and your boss.
1. Remember That Age Is Just a Number
We all know age is just a number. We all know 50-somethings who act like 20-somethings and vice versa; we know of old souls and youthful souls; we know that some people like to be called “70 years young.” You get the picture.
No matter how old you are (or feel!), don’t think you’re obliged to act younger because the boss is. You don’t have to act your age, but you do need to keep tabs on your image and actions in a professional setting.
When you meet your new, younger boss, acknowledge the age difference with some light-hearted humor to reassure them that though it might be a little awkward, it won’t affect your professionalism. Chances are, they’re insecure about managing someone older—and giving them cues that you’re on the same side will help zap that tension. Your cultural references may not sync up, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how well you can work together.
2. Ignore Generational Stereotypes
The workplace is filled with unkind stereotypes: the entitled, selfie-obsessed millennial; the out-of-touch baby boomer who stubbornly refuses to retire; the apathetic Gen Xer out for herself. You know the drill—and now you have to drill these toxic stereotypes out of your head.
The first thing to do is stop making assumptions about your boss because of their generation. You know what happens when you assume. So don’t. Not all millennial bosses are tech-savvy, just as not all baby boomers are technologically inept.
Ask yourself this: do I want to be seen as entitled? Or apathetic? Or out of touch?
Of course you don’t, so avoid projecting these stereotypes onto your boss. Instead, focus on your boss’s unique strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t know what they are, ask. Get to know the person, not the person who happened to be born between the years of X and Y.
3. Establish Communication Methods
It’s often said that baby boomers prefer face-to-face communication, while millennials prefer digital communication. But see point number one: don’t assume this is always the case. Ask your new boss for communication preferences and be ready to adapt to the chosen methods.
However, it’s not unrealistic to ask for the kind of communication you prefer, especially if it significantly impacts your job performance. If you’re the kind of Ninja who needs facetime, ask for a weekly or daily check-in. It’s better to be more communicative than not.
4. Tread Carefully with Giving Advice
Advice is a tricky thing to give, whether you’re a friend, parent, or co-worker. It’s even trickier when it comes to your boss. There are two ways it could go: either he or she asks for advice, or they don’t—but you see the need to give it.
If your boss is smart, they’ll tap into your years of experience by asking for some advice on a project or specific methodology. You give your advice, the boss takes it, and everyone’s happy!
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Remember that your boss is under no obligation to follow through with that advice. If that’s the case, don’t be pushy or condescending, be polite and let it go.
Additionally, there may be times when you have advice and recommendations you feel will help your manager and team as a whole based on experience. In that case, tell your boss. Be thoughtful in your phrasing and try to emphasize how doing X solved Y challenge—not how person A approached it before.
Your experience and skill sets are more integral to who you are as a trusted office Ninja than your age. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, then get to work. This person could be your greatest boss yet.
Ninjas, what are some tips you find helpful in working with and for people who are younger than you?