Can you ever take seriously a leader whose high school diploma has the same graduation date as your son or daughter?
The short answer is: yes.
The longer answer is: yes, and you’d better learn how because it’s going to be happening more and more. A recent CareerBuilder/Harris Interactive survey found that nearly 40% of American workers have a younger boss, up from 34% in 2012.
But when you’re reporting to someone decades your junior, the divide can be far greater than whether or not you view Slack or Stride as an annoyance or a crucial business communication tool.
You may feel a little embarrassed, even ashamed, to be the junior-ranked party, especially if you’ve spent decades in a company or industry. Your boss, meanwhile, might be hesitant to give you directives, or show that she’s still learning in some areas.
“A boss is expected to have the answers, but when he or she doesn’t, and their employees are older with years of experience, it makes it all the more intimidating,” says Gene Fairbrother, president of MBA Consulting, a strategic planning firm that helps small businesses with workplace issues.
The following advice can help you—and your newly-minted leader—move past these emotional challenges.
Just because your boss is young doesn’t mean he won’t be a good leader. Plus, even if he’s relatively new to the industry, chances are he’s just been trained on the latest technologies and processes.
Turn that into an advantage: if you notice your boss using a technique you’re not familiar with, spend some time researching it so that you can come in with a few educated questions. “It’s okay not to know everything,” Fairbrother says. “It’s not okay to brush aside new ideas or processes just because the person talking about them doesn’t have the work experience you have.”
Ask for face time.
Yes, younger folks tend to like communicating via text and email. And delivery services like Seamless and GrubHub have embedded the desk lunch in today’s office culture, making business lunches a thing of the past.
But as an older worker, you know the power of a personal chat. So don’t hesitate to request an in-person meeting with your boss when you have an important topic to discuss. Or better yet, ask her out for lunch or coffee.
Aim to be a partner, not a critic.
Nothing will turn off a young colleague faster than hearing you say, “Well, when I started we did things this way.”
Rather than implying that their approach is wrong, try sharing specific experiences, says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the book Managing the Older Worker. “Tell them what you saw happen before and how things played out,” he says.
On the flip side, realize that if your younger boss doesn’t seem interested in the experience and knowledge you bring, it may be that she doesn’t know how to go about accessing that information without looking weak.
“Once upon a time, you were 25 or 30, so think back to what you were feeling at that age,” says Carlota Zimmerman, a New York City-based career coach. Help her out by simply offering information, without waiting for her to ask.
You don’t need to dwell on your age, but neither do you need to apologize for it. Being on the other side of 40 means you have experience and have lived through multiple life stages. Just because your boss is at a different stage than you doesn’t mean you can’t relate to each other.
“None of us can push back the clock, whether we’re 20 or 60,” says Kathryn Lancioni, founder and CEO of Communication Insights, a strategic communication and consulting firm.
So if someone in the office feels the need to point out that your boss is young enough to be your son, just laugh it off and move on.
After all, it’s just a matter of time before your boss is answering to someone even younger.