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7 Tips for Working for a Much Younger Boss

Nearly 4 in 10 U.S. workers report to managers who aren't as old as they are. Here's how to transform those relationships from awkward to awesome.

A little girl sitting at a desk with glasses on.

​When Ashley Steiner took a position as director of human resources at Grove City Medical Center in Grove City, Pa., in January, the 24-year-old became the direct supervisor of two employees more than twice her age, including HR assistant Kendra Shearer, 54. “I was apprehensive about how things were going to work out because of the age difference,” Shearer says. 

“My co-worker and I are Baby Boomers, and we were used to doing things a certain way,” she explains. For example, “we always gave new employees paper packets for orientation. But now we use PowerPoint presentations and do everything electronically, thanks to Ashley.” Today, Shearer calls the age gap between her and her boss “a blessing.” 

Shearer is among the nearly 4 in 10 U.S. workers with a younger boss, according to the results of a recent Harris Interactive survey conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder. That number will only grow as more Baby Boomers retire and members of the Millennial generation—who vastly outnumber their older colleagues from Generation X—step into management positions. 

But not all employees adjust to this reality as well as Shearer did, and, unfortunately, clashing with a younger manager can hurt your career prospects. “If you don’t get along with your boss, you’re not going to get tapped for promotions or plum assignments,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School and co-author of Managing the Older Worker (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010). 

Struggling to adapt to having a younger manager can also affect your health and well-being. A recent study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that most workers at firms with managers younger than themselves reported having more negative emotions, such as anger and fear, than those with older bosses.

The key to thriving under your Millennial manager, Cappelli says, is to understand and address the dynamics that the age difference creates. Follow these tips to cultivate a connection with a younger boss. 

1. Address the Age Gap 

When you’re working for a significantly younger boss, “it’s impossible to ignore the age difference,” says Nancy Noto, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant in New York City for startup and growth-stage companies. 

Of course, broaching the topic with your boss can be awkward, but when done tactfully, it can strengthen the relationship, says Matthew Burr, an Elmira, N.Y.-based HR consultant who has experience managing older workers. For example, you could say to your boss, “I know there’s a stereotype that older workers like myself don’t want to learn new technology, but I’m the opposite. I’m always looking to learn new skills.” 

It’s also important to show your manager that you see yourself as a team member—not a rival, Cappelli says. You can communicate that by saying, “I understand that there’s an age difference, and I want you to know that I’m here to support you, and I hope you’ll engage my expertise.”

2. Find Common Ground

Once that’s out of the way, you can focus on building a rapport, which is the foundation to any great business relationship. Rather than dwelling on generational differences, focus on what you have in common, Burr advises. You can pose nonwork-related questions to get a sense of your manager’s hobbies (“Did you catch the Giants game last night?”) and then connect over shared interests. 

3. Embrace Change

Since younger employees are new to the workforce, they may be less likely to be stuck in the mindset that there’s only one way to do things. Steiner valued Shearer’s willingness to learn new skills and said that attitude made her job as a manager a whole lot easier. “Health care is an ever-changing industry,” Steiner says. “Things change rapidly, so you have to progress with it.” 

For her part, Shearer says she has “learned how important it is to be flexible and to not be afraid to learn new things.” 

[SHRM Members'-Only Toolkit: Developing Management]

4. Tailor Your Communication Style

Some Millennial workers prefer to communicate via e-mail or text rather than talking things out in person—but don’t jump to any conclusions based solely on a person’s age. Find out what your manager’s favored method of communication is and then embrace it. You may have to learn how to use new tools, such as chat programs like Slack, but doing so will only enhance your knowledge, experience and career opportunities. 

You may also find it helpful to keep your discussions brief. “The younger generation is used to having much faster, more pointed conversations,” says Michelle Tenzyk, CEO and founder at HR consulting firm East Tenth Group in New York City.

5. Avoid Stereotypes

Just as there is a stigma associated with being an older worker, there are negative stereotypes of Millennials, including that they are entitled, easily distracted and narcissistic. However, these perceptions are often misguided. “It’s human nature to make assumptions and judgments based on age,” Tenzyk says, “but being able to suspend those can make you a better employee.” 

6. Be a Collaborator—Not a Mentor

As someone with more experience, you may feel tempted to become an unofficial mentor to your boss. That can backfire. “You can talk about your experience, but you have to use language that won’t come off as degrading or condescending,” says Jennifer Brown, SHRM-SCP, founder and CEO at PeopleTactics, an HR consulting firm in Potomac Falls, Va. 

Rather than offering unsolicited career advice, give your manager helpful historical information about your job and the organization. For instance, you can say, “In my experience, I’ve found XYZ to be particularly useful when communicating with our clients.” Offering to help your boss get settled in and acclimated to the team can also cement a good working relationship.

Many younger managers are already worried that they won’t be taken seriously, especially when it’s their first time supervising older workers, so choose your language carefully. To avoid coming across as a know-it-all (or, worse, a stick-in-the-mud), steer clear of these phrases:

“When I was your age ...”

“This is the way we’ve always done it.”

“I’ve been doing this since before you were born.”

7. Don’t Try Too Hard to Be ‘Cool’

Generally, it’s OK to befriend your boss; after all, research from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that managers tend to promote people they like. But that doesn’t mean you should adopt youthful mannerisms or catchphrases that you wouldn’t otherwise use. At the same time, don’t worry if your personal responsibilities prevent you from socializing with your boss and co-workers after hours. No matter how old you are, the coolest thing you can be is authentic. 

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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