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6 Tips for Working for a Much Younger Boss

What this expert on older workers said on 'Dr. Phil'

By Kerry Hannon

A childhood friend, who’s 56, sent me a note saying he was just fired from his contract position as a financial analyst at a large nonprofit, which he’d been told would likely lead to a full-time opportunity. He was hired there six months ago and was uber-qualified for the work. But I had an inkling this might happen because of his dicey relationship with his much younger boss.

Dr. Phil
Kerry Hannon talking about older workers/younger bosses on 'Dr. Phil'  |  Credit: Dr. Phil

When my friend and I had coffee two months ago, he mentioned that his 32-year-old boss wasn’t thrilled about having this “old man” helicopter in to “fix” things in her department. She was impatient with him, he said, and rolled her eyes when he asked questions. She was also sarcastic towards him in public and didn’t invite my friend to team get-togethers. Plus: she intentionally left him off emails and didn’t include him in key meetings.

Why My Friend Lost His Job

My friend told me he tried to talk to his boss about their working relationship and she discounted any problems. Finally, he asked her boss for a “respectful” work environment and whether he could report to someone else. Then he got axed. My theory is that his young boss worried my friend would take her job and was threatened by him.

Although I’m only hearing his side of the story, I know in my heart that the root of it is the older worker/younger boss dilemma pervasive in workplaces across America.

Talking to Dr. Phil About Having a Much Younger Boss

Getting along with your boss can be a test for all of us at times, but imagine having someone nearly 30 years younger than you telling you what to do. That’s what I recently talked, and offered tips, about on a recent segment of The Dr. Phil Show. I also wrote about the sometime power struggle between younger bosses and older workers in my book Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and speak about it frequently to audiences around the country.

As I told Dr. Phil, older worker/younger boss issues can affect employees' job performance and productivity. A September 2016 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that most workers at firms with managers younger than themselves reported more negative emotions, such as anger and fear, than those with older managers.

The study noted that having a younger boss goes against long-held career and status norms. We’re used to reporting to someone older and more experienced. So the generational shift can be disturbing psychologically. The anger more than likely stems from not feeling valued and respected; there may be some resentment, too. Plus there’s the genuine fear of getting fired if the boss isn’t on board with having an older worker on the team.

As more older workers stay on the job longer, I think employers need to provide more leadership training for younger bosses to work with older workers, so it’s a win for everyone.

6 Tips for Older Workers With Younger Bosses

But in the meantime, here are my six top tips if you're struggling with working for a much younger boss:

1. Manage your attitude. Pause and do some soul searching. Is your unhappiness about you or the boss? Could this be an ego issue for you? And think about it: Do you really want to be the boss at this stage of your life, or have you been there, done that?


2. Have empathy. Your boss may feel threatened and a little insecure about managing you. Have respect for your boss. Yes, he or she needs to respect you, but it's a two way street: There’s (presumably) a reason your boss has the job.

3. Get physically fit. Your boss may view you as a dinosaur, so prove that wrong. When you are physically fit, you bring a sense of energy and can-do spirit to the job. People want to work with you. They want your positive vibe.

To counteract a misimpression about a lack of enthusiasm, raise your hand and ask for new assignments. Pick up some new skills. Sign up for a workplace development program. Push yourself. Once you start taking these proactive steps, you’ll be staying relevant and your boss will see your effort firsthand.

4. Talk about the elephant in the room. Try to open up the doors of communication with your boss by addressing the issue face-to-face and letting your manager know how you feel. Your tense work relationship might be as simple as a communication snafu.

My experience is that younger managers tend to prefer texts to emails, phone calls or real-time verbal conversations while older workers are often just the opposite. And some Millennial managers who come across as sharp or sarcastic might just be acting and talking the way they do with their peers.

5. Find the silver lining. It can be fun working alongside someone younger than you. There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to make an old topic seem new. That can get you excited about your work.

Not having to be the boss and responsible for managing teams of people can also be liberating. So focus on what you can learn from your younger boss.

6. Keep networking. This is not the time to be complacent about building your network with people of all ages. After all, your boss may really be a jerk and you may need to find a new job sometime soon.

Employers still hire the old-fashioned way, bringing on people they know — or those who come recommended to them. So keep adding contacts and connections on LinkedIn. Attend industry association gatherings and get involved in committees or boards. Go to alumni get-togethers. Make it a point to have coffee or lunch with someone who could help your career. Volunteer at a nonprofit or at an outing with your employer’s volunteer efforts. You never know whom you might meet.

As I told Dr. Phil: Never forget that networking is just one letter away from not working.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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