Paging all accomplished women of the world: At some point in your career, you may find yourself reporting to a boss who—gasp—is younger than you. (According to Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in a Multigenerational Workplace, a whopping 38 percent of Americans find themselves in this situation.) Before you start job searching or, worse, harboring feelings of resentment, heed Pollak’s advice: Age discrepancies at the office may actually be a good thing.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Attention to Your Age
According to Pollak, the key to success, when reporting to a younger manager, is this: Get out of your own head. In other words, don’t assume your age is a problem. “People have a tendency to make jokes and draw attention to it,” Pollak says. “Don’t call yourself a luddite; don’t say ‘I’m old enough to be your mother,’ or ‘When I was your age.’ In most cases, no one notices until you’re the one who mentions it.”
Remember, an Age Gap Just Means More Diversity
Maybe you’re an introvert with an extrovert boss. Or perhaps you’re a numbers and data person reporting to an artistic and visual manager. Age is really just one more point of difference and one more area in your career where you may have to adpat. “The best approach at the workplace is to think of your boss as your client,” Pollak says. “You have a lot of responsibility that’s tied to that relationship. She manages you, but you have to manage up and learn your boss’s style of work and preferences without making generational assumptions—i.e., you’re 22, you must only text. Or I have more experience than you when it comes to navigating office politics.”
Assume Your Boss Has the Best Intentions
Your younger-than-you boss is wearing her Airpods all day long. Now, you’re stewing and wondering: “Why does she have those in? She’s so anti-social.” Or “She must want to avoid me.” But try pivoting your point of view: “She must be wearing them to be more productive.” When you assume the best and give your boss the benefit of the doubt, it’s a good gut check—and one that relieves frustration and bitterness.
Work Hard to Find Common (and Ageless) Ground
The cliché is true: Age is just a number. What matters in the workplace is building person-to-person relationships. Ask your youngun’ boss what his interests are; talk about Game of Thrones or sports or why you both love your job. The bottom line: When you get to know somebody as a human being, generational divides typically go away.
Never Ever Age Shame
Pollak references Chip Conley, a self-described “modern elder,” who worked in the boutique hotel industry for 24 years before being invited to join the staff of Airbnb as the oldest person in the company by about 20 years. “He tried to learn as much as he could from his younger colleagues,” Pollak says. “But if he ever had a correction to contribute—say, someone didn’t know the history of the industry or fully understand a reference to something from another era—he always did it in private. Age shaming anyone in public is a bad idea.”
Network With People of All Ages
Reverse mentorship is trending—and having a younger person of whom you can ask questions or favors is never a bad idea. If you find yourself with a boss who’s younger than you, make sure she’s not the only millennial you know. And when you do find yourself in conversations with different generations, express curiosity, not judgment. Ask: “What do you think of X topic? I’d love your perspective.” It’s all about seeing the positive.