How to Handle a Boss from a Younger Generation – A Guide for the Senior Employee

Talent Plus Talent Plus

The workplace is rapidly changing, and one of the reasons is because of the generational diversity that we encounter today at work. The Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) is retiring later and working longer, while the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 1996) is exponentially growing and gradually becoming the largest demographic in the world’s workplace (Gallup, 2016). As the population ages and the people stay in the workforce longer, it is highly likely that there are increasing situations where the leaders are younger than their teams, especially with many organizations’ efforts to retain top talents by promoting more young Millennials into leadership positions.

Even though working for a younger boss is becoming more common in today’s multigenerational workforce, the circumstance might not be accepted as openly by many. In India, around 80% of senior professionals with more than 20 years of experience, claimed that they prefer older bosses (TimesJobs, 2015). In the United States, approximately 45% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers felt that Millennial bosses could have a negative impact on the company’s culture due to lack of managerial experience (Workplace Trends, 2015). In addition, workers at firms with managers younger than themselves reported more negative emotions, such as anger and fear, than those with older managers (Kunze, 2016).

Although it seems to be potentially uncomfortable and could trigger conflicts for some, it doesn’t have to be. Here is a guide for the senior employee on how to foster a positive work culture when working for a younger boss, broken down into three main steps: discover self, discover others, and meaningful actions.

  1. Discover Self

    Think Positively. If the age difference really bothers you and affecting your work, have a moment of reflection. Ask yourself about your source of anger: whether it is the unfairness of the promotion or if you feel that you deserve the position more. Then, consider whether you really want the position and the added responsibility. Think about the added value that the younger boss has, and you might not possess.
    Stay True to Who You Are. Even if you have a younger boss, it doesn’t mean that you are obliged to act younger. Discover who you truly are and what you bring to the table. When you are aware of your natural talents and strengths, you can further think about how you can positively contribute to your surroundings.

  2. Discover Others

    Contemplate beyond your biases and judgments. Our society is filled with generational stereotypes that affect how we think about each other. A few of the common labels we hear include the “narcissistic” baby Boomers who refuse to retire and the “entitled” Millennials who are attached to their smartphones. According to the research of Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School and co-author of Managing the Older Worker, there are no statistically significant character differences between the generations. We should stop making assumptions about people from different generations. When we are able to look at a person beyond the surface of socially constructed labels, we would be able to truly respect and appreciate each person for their true persona and value.
    Appreciate each other’s talents. Understand that you might not be the only one feeling uncomfortable by the generational gap; your young boss possibly feels intimidated too. Be sensitive of these feelings and show humility by recognizing that you and your boss have different talents and capabilities that you bring to the team. Only when you appreciate each other’s differences and strengths, you can strategize on how to collaborate and build a cooperative work environment.

  3. Meaningful Actions

    Complement your boss’ strengths with yours. Although you might feel that your younger boss has newly updated skills that you might not have, one thing where you surely can add value is your extensive experience that gives you credibility. You can share the historical context about your organization and how things are typically done, without being condescending or coming off as a know-it-all. Once you have discovered yourself and what you do best, you can better figure out a way to add value and complement your boss’ strengths in a meaningful way.
    Focus on what matters most. Reflect upon yourself, “Why are you here in the first place?” “What is your purpose?” “What is the bigger picture?” When you are able to answer these important questions, you can better understand how you and your boss are parts of a collective team to build the department, division or company. Focusing on the bigger picture can distract you away from the internal disputes concerning generational differences.

A key to foster a positive work culture for our multigenerational workforce begins with awareness, on self and others. Once you have gained a deeper understanding, you can better strategize on how you can add value to your boss and the team, and how each of your strengths can complement each other. Tolerance and respect for talents and strengths go beyond age and generational boundaries, removing biases and appreciating humans for who they truly are – thus creating impact together.

Putri Pamela, M.S., is a Management Consultant at Talent Plus at our Asia-Pacific Office.

  • How Millennial Want to Work and Live. (Gallup, 2016).
  • Managing the Older Worker: How to prepare for the new organizational order. (Cappelli, P., 2010)
  • TimesJobs Leadership Survey. (TimesJobs, 2015)
  • The Multi-Generational Leadership Study. (Workplace Trends, 2015)
  • Younger Supervisors, Older Subordinates: An organizational‐level study of age differences, emotions, and performance. (Kunze, F., 2016)

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