How to Work for a Younger Boss

Career Blog

Millennials and Zillennials continue to infiltrate the workforce and navigate the corporate ladder just as Baby Boomers and some Gen-Xers begin to reevaluate the importance of a career in the work/life balance equation. 

As priorities shift, younger professionals often manage older workers. While the phenomenon is not new, it is more pervasive than ever before. But should it matter? No. Not in the least.

As a CHRO, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to work with and for younger CEOs. I’ve found that only two things can make the dynamic problematic: ego and competence.

You’ll struggle to work for a younger professional if your ego is too big. On the other hand, if their competence is too low, you’ll struggle to find a reason to stay. 

What’s Driving the Trend?

Some say that, despite what the doomsayers would have you believe, there is no sinister force at play – no backroom architect seeking to rid the world of older workers. If you’re finding more younger professionals in the corner offices, there are at least two logical reasons why.

The first is demographics. There are simply fewer Gen-Xers than there were Boomers. As the latter retire, millennials are filling the gap. Secondly, younger workers may legitimately have skills that older workers were never taught in school and failed to acquire on the job.

While there is truth to both statements, others call foul. Cynics assert that HR’s hyper-focus on diversity issues is pushing younger workers into senior roles sooner…whether or not they are ready. They also blame cost-cutting measures for the anomaly, citing the ousting of higher-paid older workers in favor of junior professionals who will do the same job for less money.

Like all things, the truth is likely in the middle. 

A Question of Fairness

Fairness is fleeting. And often, it’s negotiated. Rather than bemoan a situation you’re unhappy with, analyze the facts behind your feelings.

If you feel it’s unfair that your manager is younger, ask why. Is it unfair because you applied for the job and were not selected? If so, confront HR and the hiring manager about the reason. A missing competency is easier to accept than a DEI mandate. Perhaps it’s unfair because “back in your day,” people had to work harder, wait longer, and walk to school uphill…both ways, before getting the big job. 

You can address the reality once you understand the why behind the feeling. Sometimes, the truth will surprise you.

I once coached a professional who was distraught over being rejected for a promotion to manager. I thought the desire odd because, while he was a technical wizard in his discipline, he legitimately didn’t like people. When I asked about their true motivation for seeking the role, he confessed it was to impress a potential bride. Titles are important everywhere, but apparently, they were critical in this part of India.  

I’ve also worked with people who became upset when they didn’t get a job they never actually wanted. That’s not rational. But it was the “next step,” and high performers always go for what’s next, even if they don’t want it. 

Yes, there’s a big difference between what you want and what you think you should want. Sometimes, just seeing that reality allows you to embrace the correct version of success. That reality or right often trumps the hypothetical of fairness. 

What to Do?

Regardless of how the situation arose and whether you think it fair, it’s essential to recognize that both parties may feel awkward about a pronounced age gap. Older executives may feel outshined and passed over, while the young leaders may doubt their worthiness for the position. 

Often, both assumptions are incorrect. Career paths take a variety of twists and turns, and success comes in many forms. The parties should acknowledge their feelings, but ultimately, it’s a non-issue.

People are where they most want to be. When you acknowledge and respect the other party for what they bring to their jobs, little differences like age fall into the background. So, ditch the calendar and focus on competence. When you dial back egos and dial-up respect, the situation solves itself.

 The Right Move

Great managers can teach and are open to learning. Neither action has anything to do with age. You’re aligned to a winner if you work with someone who provides challenging work, helpful feedback, and supports your career goals. Take full advantage of the opportunity. 

On the other hand, if your manager can’t or won’t teach you anything and is too stubborn to listen, it’s likely time to leave. Work takes too much of our time to be a drain on our lives. If you’re unhappy, go where you most need to be. 

Need a career coach? Contact me via www.PlotlineLeadership.com.

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