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When You Feel Like the Oldest Person at Work

How to enjoy a job surrounded by Gen X and Gen Y colleagues

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot

One of the traits of boomers I always point out in my intergenerational workplace programs is the inability to see ourselves as “old.”
So I was intrigued reading journalist Michele Willens’ recent New York Times opinion piece, “When Did We Get So Old?” She wrote that boomers (like her) at work tend to “settle into one of two groups.” There are those who prefer being around younger people, said Willens, and those who prefer places where they are on the younger end of the age spectrum of “the people in the room.”
I am firmly in the first camp, eager to interact with my many twentysomething and thirtysomething colleagues and new friends that age. I thrive on the energy of what’s next and my interest and passion resonates with them. I consider myself very fortunate to be “cross-generational.”

(MORE: How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers)
But not everyone in their 50s and 60s feels that way.

Willens wrote: “Why some of us cope better with the troubling transition of being one of the oldest may be based on how we measure our self esteem.” Or, I suggest, it may relate to a willingness to shift attitudes about the role of work in our lives and how we want to continue to contribute.
I get it that if you have or had a highly regarded position, it can be difficult to let go of being in charge or accept that it’s time to let younger colleagues take the reins. And if you’re surrounded by Gen X’ers and Millennials, you may wonder whether they’re mentally dismissing you as “old.”
Nonetheless, you might as well make the best of the situation. Here are five suggestions to start you off if you’re uncomfortable feeling like the oldest person at the room at work:
Recognize that you don’t have to be perceived as the youngest person in the room in order to feel excited and empowered about work. Even some aging famous actors are realizing they can produce small gems of performances and enjoy themselves with less of a burden of responsibility to carry the movie or show.

(MORE: How to Survive a Young, Abusive Boss)
You’re still capable of being considered a gem of a player, a valuable contributor — it’s just different. Role shifts may be needed. So, give serious thought to what new roles would bring you learning opportunities and satisfaction. Discuss the possibilities with a career coach or others who know your (possibly unrecognized) strengths and will be candid with you.
Realize that you will be valued by younger colleagues and people you mentor, especially if you show interest in collaborating and learning from them. As I explained in this YouTube video, they can’t “Google” what you can teach them.
Consider striking up an alliance or partnership with a young entrepreneur. That way, you can combine your well-honed skills and judgment with the young founder’s energy, ambition and ideas. Many young people are interested in social entrepreneurship, which also appeals to boomers as an encore career. Seek out meetings of startup companies, network and commence mutually beneficial conversations.
If you are set on retaining the feeling of being the youngest in the room, look for opportunities to serve older people. You can find them in the burgeoning marketplace of products and services for the elderly or in a nonprofit serving seniors. Boomers are urgently needed and welcomed in those fields.

(MORE: Show Your Boss Your 'Authentic Age')
In short, think of yourself as a colleague — not as a parent.  Don’t try to be something you are not, and don’t fake interests in what you think they think is cool. Millennials and Gen X’ers value authenticity and transparency.
You will reach a new level of comfort if you follow these three rules, which happen to be the keys for successful improv performers: Be in the moment, make positive choices and make your colleagues look good.

Phyllis Weiss Haserot, a passionate champion of cross-generational conversation and President of Practice Development Counsel, helps organizations and individuals solve inter-generational challenges among work colleagues and with clients to achieve enviable productivity, knowledge transfer, engagement, retention, succession planning and business development results. Reach her at [email protected] and Read More
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