There are many uncomfortable situations that can arise in any workplace, but one (seemingly) universal issue that seems to cause problems is when people are made to work with young workers. More specifically, when older workers have to work under someone who is younger than them.
Generational differences are often a challenge in work at the best of times, but it seems to be worse when workers have to deal with a younger boss. Even if it’s not a boss, just having to take orders from a younger employee can cause tension in a workplace.
Industries including IT, accounting and professional services, are already investing in younger bosses, and it appears as though other organisations will become likely to do so, too. Jeanne C. Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace, the human resources consultancy, and co-author of The 2020 Workplace, says “companies promote young Millennials into leadership positions and organisations make more of an effort to retain top talent.” Despite the fact that it is, as she calls it, a “potentially uncomfortable, potentially conflict-ridden” situation.
But why is this a problem?
Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at the Wharton School and co-author of Managing the Older Worker, says “It’s not so much the age thing as the experience thing.” In other words, if it was outside of work, taking instructions from someone younger than them wouldn’t be such a big deal. For example, if they were taking a guitar lesson from an instructor who is 20 years younger than them but has been playing guitar for 15 years. “That’s not going to bother you,” says Cappelli. “But if you’ve been in business for 20 years and your boss has been in business for 10, you might think, ‘Why am I taking orders from this person?’ His authority doesn’t seem legitimate.”
This also leads on to the second problem: older generations tend to presume that a younger boss means a bad boss. “Don’t assume he’s going to be a bad boss just because he’s younger,” says Cappelli. “Why manufacture problems before you have them?”
A lot of the time when people have these problems with younger workers and bosses, it is more of a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about how they feel about the younger worker. Sometimes it’s simply that they’re bothered by the fact that they feel as though they should be in that position and not someone younger than them.
Stereotypes could also take part of the blame. The workplace brims with generational stereotypes: the young and entitled worker who seems to be permanently attached to their phone, the Baby Boomer who refuses to retire, and, of course, that one person who just seems to be out for themselves. But it is when people buy into these stereotypes – like believing the young boss is going to sit on his phone all day – that problems arise.
However, according to Cappelli’s research, there are no real character differences between the generations. If someone constantly pigeonholes an entire age group and use statements like ‘people in my generation feel this way,’ then they will cause tension. “You are two people who made a decision to work in the same industry at the same company,” Cappelli says. Meister also adds that people should try to “take age out of the equation.”
Meister also suggests that people rarely consider the fact that they and their younger boss have different capabilities and skillsets that they bring to the table. “You may have a deeper niche skill while your boss has a broader managerial skill set.” She also says that people shouldn’t let age become a problem – the things a worker needs to do to cultivate a strong rapport with a young boss are exactly the same things as they would need to do to create a strong and solid relationship with a boss who was older. She says workers “need to treat this as any other business relationship.”
In addition to this, what some older workers fail to understand when it comes to working under someone younger than them is that their experience gives them credibility. Rather than using the information they know to tell or teach their younger boss something they might not know, they can sometimes come off sounding condescending or like a know-it-all. Workers should “talk about [their] experience in a way that emphasizes [their] own learning and doesn’t sound like bragging,” Cappelli says. They should “use it to be helpful.”
Having to work under a younger worker should not be a problem in today’s society. However, there are many workplaces that struggle with generational differences where an older worker’s ego gets in the way of forming relationships with their younger bosses.
But for those who struggle to support their boss – which is their job no matter the age of the person they’re working under – Meister offers up some advice, suggesting that people need to deal with their feelings first. “Having a younger boss—particularly when the person is the age of your son or daughter—can be an emotional situation so you need to deal with it on an emotional level.” She adds, “If you don’t deal with your feelings, it will impede your productivity.”
If they work to understand their boss’s problems and pitch solutions as well as providing them with historical and relational information about the organisation and industry that they might not know, then they can avoid feeling uncomfortable with generational differences in the workplace.