One of the latest challenges for 50-plus workers is figuring out how to work effectively and happily for a boss who is younger.
Many of us these days already do, or we will. As more boomers push back retirement dates, and working part time in retirement becomes a pillar of retirement plans, this generational swing dance is taking place in small and large businesses across the country.
A September 2012 survey by the jobs website CareerBuilder found that one-third of U.S. employees reported working for someone younger. Fifteen percent said their boss was at least 10 years younger.
While most workers said it wasn’t difficult to work for a younger boss, differences in work styles and communication often cropped up. The truth is that even if your boss is razor sharp and has the chops to lead, it’s tough not to chafe when taking orders from someone who’s the same age as your kids.
Here are 10 ways to help you deal with the age difference.
1. Manage your attitude
Keep in mind that you were once that brash young boss or rising star, full of clever ideas and new ways of doing things. So listen carefully to what the boss has to say and respect the title and position. “Go out of your way to show your willingness to try new approaches,” says Beverly Jones, an executive career coach with Clearways Consulting in Washington, D.C.
According to the CareerBuilder survey, some employees complained that their younger bosses acted as if they knew more than older workers when they didn’t. That may be true in some cases, but don’t be so certain that you know more. You don’t want to come across as a know-it-all. So quiet the condescending tone in your voice. How you treat someone, even subliminally, generally is reflected back at you.
Beware of developing a repetitive negative thought, like: “What does he know? He’s got no experience,” Jones says. “Reframe your thinking, and regularly repeat a positive reminder to yourself, like: ‘He’s the boss. I’ll figure out what he wants and needs, and I’ll give it to him.’ ”
Then, too, try to see it from your boss’ perspective. While you’re fretting that your expertise isn’t valued, your supervisor, in fact, may be bristling that you’re acting like a parent or mentor, and not giving the proper credit for his or her education and experience.
2. Talk about the elephant in the room
Younger bosses may wonder if you will have a tough time reporting to someone their age. They’re concerned that you’re set in your ways, not willing to try new approaches to doing things, not up to snuff with technology, and possibly you don’t have the grit to do the job. Tell them you realize that they may have these concerns, but explain why they shouldn’t worry. Better yet, show them.
“Get social,” Jones says. “You may not feel like hanging out with younger coworkers, but do it anyway, at least sometimes. Connecting at casual events can help you build vital relationships and it will keep you in the information loop.” If it’s appropriate for your position, stay engaged on social networks such as LinkedIn industry groups, Google+ or Twitter by posting interesting articles. You could forward an article to your boss that you think is cutting edge with a note that you ran across it via one of your social media platforms.
3. Concentrate on what you have to offer
“I think it’s important for the more experienced worker to try to focus on what he or she offers the employer rather than overly focusing on the age concern,” says Miriam Salpeter, a job search consultant at Keppie Careers and author of a new free e-book: 5 Mistakes Job Seekers Make and How to Avoid Them. “Consider your experience an asset and pay attention to how well you’re prepared to do the job. For example, your maturity and experience helps you solve problems more quickly.” Volunteer to mentor younger workers or be mentored by younger colleagues in areas where your boss may show some concern about your prowess.
4. Find the silver lining
The enthusiasm that a younger boss brings to the job can be contagious. Soak it up. “If you’ve ever managed other people, you know it can be hard work,” says Michelle Hynes, a career coach in Portland, Ore. “Your supervisor will love you if you’re one of the people who makes it easy — and even fun.”
Be positive. “Cross-generational misunderstandings can arise in any relationship,” Hynes says. “But staying open to new learning, asking questions when something goes awry, and genuinely wanting a win-win situation will go a long way.”
See also: 5 ways to being happier at work
The key to success in a younger boss scenario? “Realize that you’re building a relationship that allows each of you to be successful in the workplace,” Hynes says. “Ask yourself: How can I be a good partner?”
And be curious, she advises. “Everyone’s experience has limits, and there’s always more to learn. What growth opportunities does working with and for this person offer?”
Finally, be generous. “You have knowledge and networks built over many decades,” she says. “How can sharing these help your boss succeed?”
5. Get hip to texting
A younger manager will probably want to communicate with you via text message, instant messenger or emails rather than face-to-face chats or the phone. Voice messages are passé. A missed cellphone call is comparable to a voice message for the younger set. Don’t resist. It’s up to you to adapt.
6. Prepare for less face time
For many younger managers, time spent in the office is not as vital as the results you produce. So your well-honed work ethic of being an early bird at your desk might not impress. Teleworking tends to be looked on more favorably, especially if you can get more work done by not cooling your heels in rush-hour commutes.
Meetings are more likely to be via teleconferences and webinars. Get acquainted with Web-based applications like GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Join.me, TeamViewer or Google+ Hangouts. See which platform your company or IT department prefers. If you haven’t tried it at work, get comfortable by trying these platforms with someone outside the office.
7. Note your latest achievements
“Let go of the past,” Jones says. “It’s great to feel pride for accomplishments in past years, but know that you get no points for them in today’s workplace. Your boss is focused on current challenges and wants to know regularly how you’re helping to address today’s problems and tomorrow’s goals.”
8. Steer away from age-centric comments
Avoid suggesting that something younger managers do is similar to something your adult children are doing, or bringing up what you were doing when you were their age. This sounds obvious, but sometimes it slips out because you’re thinking it. Your boss rarely wants to know that he or she reminds you of your child.
And skip the chitchat about your personal life that dates you. For example, “there’s no need to bring up the fact that you’re expecting your third grandchild,” Salpeter says.
9. Keep your skills current
If you’ve recently updated any software certifications or you are proficient in social media, let your boss know. Ask to take advantage of retraining opportunities to keep your entire tool kit sharp. You might also ask if you can take an online course or weekend workshop that will pump up your performance in some way. Maybe your company’s tuition reimbursement program will pay for it.
“Embrace new ways,” Jones says. “A young boss may assume that an older worker is resistant to change. Show it ain’t so. Make it your business to learn new technologies and stay up to date on industry trends. Your age will be irrelevant if your skills are fresh and your focus is on the future.”
10. Don’t act old
If you look and sound over the hill, your younger boss may assume your job skills are dated as well, Jones says.
Pay attention to what comes out of your mouth. Do you complain about your achy back persistently, remind folks how things were handled back in the day or habitually refer to your age? “If so, you’re the one making age an issue,” she says.
And you might consider a mini-makeover. You don’t necessarily need to dye your hair or spring for Botox or a chemical peel for your face, but there are things you can do to have a more youthful glow. If you aren’t physically fit, for instance, make that a priority and eat healthfully.
Consider a style makeover, Jones says. Spruce up your wardrobe and hair to give them an updated, fresh look. Free personal shoppers are available at many department stores to help, or you can ask friends for tips.
When you’re in shape and feel good about yourself, you have a certain vitality and oomph that people want to be around, regardless of your age. It subtly says, “I’m up for the job, bring it on.”
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her latest book is Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills.