Among the evolving workplace dynamics we’ve come to love—like flexible work arrangements and casual Fridays—comes a shift that rattles almost everyone affected by it: a third of employees report to someone younger than them. A few years ago, a study by Career Builder had that number at 34% to be precise. It’s likely that even more managers today are younger than their employees.
Are you one of them? Maybe you re-entered the work force after taking some extended time off, or you switched careers to finally break into the industry you’ve always wanted to be in, which is great except you had to accept a lower-level position than you’re used to.
So here you are, answering to a manager who’s both qualified and competent—and also a lot younger than you. The dynamic is not one you’re fond of; frankly, you can’t help feeling a little embarrassed.
But before you start questioning yourself and your capabilities and how on earth you’re ever going to develop a strong boss-employee relationship, you’ve got to stop lamenting the age difference, and you’ve got to start thinking with the years of experience you bring to the role.
Here are five ways to help you navigate this situation.
1. Put Your Experience to Good Use
A lot has been written on how different generations can work together and support one another. Instead of fighting against the theory that Gen Y is tech-savvy and Gen X is self-reliant, use this information and plan to learn what you can from your boss. Be prepared to teach him the knowledge you’ve gained throughout the years as well.
You may not have as much industry-specific knowledge, but you’ve probably got plenty of experience dealing with interpersonal issues and the inevitable bureaucracy that no office can seem to avoid. Consider how your past can help your manager as she grows into her role.
2. Stop Overthinking It
A lot of the issues subordinates have with reporting to someone younger than them have less to do with age, and more to do with perception. You feel awkward that you just celebrated your 40th birthday, and you’re pretty certain your boss isn’t even 30 yet. You assume the rest of the team is fixated on this age difference and wondering how they can prevent themselves from experience the same fate. You fear the leadership team views you as inferior because your title doesn’t exactly coincide with your age.
These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts. It’s imposter syndrome and self-doubt and paranoia all bumping heads, making it darn difficult for you to do your job and do it well.
Get out of your head, and trust that your career path will progress in a way that makes sense for you and where you’ve been, regardless of how old you or your boss are.
3. Make Sure Your Skills Stay Up-to-Date
No matter how much more “official” work experience you have, there will be things your younger manager does better than you do. A great way to ensure your skills remain up-to-date though is to regularly assess the trends in your industry against what you know, and then get the appropriate training where needed.
Whether that means brushing up on Excel, social media posting, or presentation skills, make a point to keep up with the trends and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know how to do something that your manager is assuming you’ve done before.
4. Become a Mentor
The tendency to want to guide and teach those younger than you are is not only a natural response, but a useful one—even when the younger person we’re talking about here is your boss. All employees (managers included) work better in open environments where collaboration is welcome.
Instead of keeping your head down and just “doing your job,” become the type of employee your manager can use as a sounding board and rely on for valuable advice. You obviously don’t want to come off as overbearing or condescending, and should let your supervisor take the lead on when and how this unofficial mentorship relationship progresses.
5. Be Confident in What You Bring to the Table
Every meeting you’ve attended, project you’ve completed, and decision you’ve made in your career has led to where you are now and informs your actions at work every day. It’s critical that you see these experiences as valuable steps on your professional journey and are self-assured in how they’ve shaped who you are.
No matter the reason you’re now reporting to someone younger than you, you’ve got to remember that you’re in the exact place you need to be in at this time in your career. Be proud of all your accomplishments thus far and focus on your unique strengths and how they can positively impact your team.
It's perfectly normal to feel some resentment over the fact that you’re reporting to someone much younger than you. The mix of emotions can be overwhelming—from dealing with feelings of smug superiority toward your manager because you're older or absolute insecurity over the fact that your boss has this prestigious title and you don’t. You just report to her.
But, again, you’ve got to stop these feelings and worries from festering. Instead of mentally highlighting what bothers you about having a younger supervisor, focus on working together to accomplish the team’s goals. This will be key for you to thrive in your position and advance.