Holly Pavlika has worked for several managers who are quite a bit younger than she is but this has never given the New York marketing executive much pause for thought.
It’s more important to focus on staying on top of your industry than worrying about a younger boss
“Working for younger bosses keeps you young, and as long as you work for someone you respect and who respects you, then there shouldn’t be any issues with the age difference,” said Pavlika, senior vice president of marketing and content at marketing company Collective Bias. “It’s more important to focus on staying on top of your industry than worrying about a younger boss.”
However, not everyone is quite so comfortable working for someone a lot younger than they are. In India, some 80% of senior professionals (those with more than 20 years of experience) said that they prefer older bosses, according to the 2015 TimesJobs Leadership Survey. In the US, some 45% of baby boomers and Gen Xers surveyed felt Millennials’ lack of managerial experience could have a negative impact on a company’s culture, according to the 2015 Multi-Generational Leadership study from executive development firm Future Work and career networking firm Beyond.
Get used to it
Yet, as the world’s population ages and people stay in the workforce longer, the situation where managers are younger than their team is set to become even more common. But, if you're not immediately comfortable working for someone young enough to be your child, what can you do?
You are probably not the only one feeling awkward
One of the first things to remember is that you are probably not the only one feeling awkward.
“The younger boss will often have concerns also, especially when they are first promoted into a management position where they supervise older workers,” said Nelson Phillips, associate dean of faculty and research at London’s Imperial College Business School, in an email, adding that it is one of his most common conversations with young, high-potential employees when they are first promoted to management positions.
Rather than pretend the awkwardness doesn’t exist, you are better off talking about the situation openly, said Victoria Maitland, director of human resources for Comrade, a digital agency based in Oakland, California. Otherwise, there is “an elephant in the room all the time, particularly if the age gap is wide,” she said. “I’m very much of the philosophy that everything should be aired in a very respectful way. I absolutely would say, ‘I know this is awkward for both of us. How should we work through this?’”
Younger managers will often prefer digital forms of communication such as texting, Slack, or Yammer
Just be careful how you word the discussion. You don’t want to come across as already expecting there will be problems, but instead indicate that you recognise the unusual situation and want to know how to move forward. In other words, “How do we make the best of it?” said Maitland. “How do we bring out the best of us in each other?”
Ways of communicating
And take the time to recognise that there's a lot to learn from the younger generation, especially when it comes to multitasking and technology. “It’s just unbelievable how many things they can be working on. The pace and capacity is beyond measure, because they grew up with technology just being an extension of them,” said Maitland. “For my generation, we work with the technology and we use it all, but our brains aren’t as fast at picking up the new skills, and these guys just inherently have them. It’s way more intuitive to them.”
I know this is awkward for both of us. How should we work through this?
Younger managers will often have very different ways of communicating. “Older employees will often prefer face-to-face meetings or a phone call while younger managers will often prefer digital forms of communication such as texting, Slack, or Yammer,” Phillips said. “It is important for older employees to have an open and honest communication about the manager’s expectation about the frequency, volume, and, most importantly, the mode of communication.”
Step up to the plate
But just having the conversation doesn’t mean you are off the hook; it’s your job to make sure that you stay current with the latest technologies. “For older employees, this can be a real challenge as these forms of communication may seem deeply unintuitive, but older employees need to rise to the challenge if they are going to show their worth,” said Phillips.
It’s definitely not okay to say, “That’s not for me. I went to training 20 years ago,” said William Novelli, co-author of Managing the Older Worker and former chief executive officer of AARP. “Stay current.”
And, it doesn’t matter if you are 70 or 20, said Novelli. “Figure out how to make yourself needed. Make yourself as indispensable as you can.”
It’s not about age
“It’s not about age. It’s about personal evolution,” said Pavlika. The biggest complaint workers have about older co-workers is that “they are out of touch and stuck in their ways, old-fashioned and haven’t embraced change,” she said. So, your job is to prove them wrong. “You need to read a lot, network like mad and not be afraid to try things a different way,” she said.
It’s okay — and often quite useful — if you share your experiences; just make sure that you are sharing them for the right reasons. “One of the benefits of having been around the track a billion times is you have a lot of experience of what worked and what didn’t work that a younger boss might welcome as long as you position it as having the best interest of the company at heart, not that you are trying to educate a younger boss,” she said.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.