How to Manage People Older than You

Alina Morse is thirteen years old, and she’s already become the face of a multi-million-dollar company. (For context, thirteen-year-old Lindsey was playing mediocre middle school field hockey and doing a little neighborhood babysitting). Together with her dad, Alina solved a problem every kid faces. She created a lollipop that was actually good for teeth! 

In a write up by Entrepreneur, “both her parents technically work for her,” which leads the rest of us to wonder how a thirteen-year-old manages her candy empire when everyone else is two or three times older than she is.

Yes, I know Alina isn’t directly managing her sales teams and product development divisions. Still, her story is a delightful example of an emerging workplace trend: over 38 percent of leaders today manage people older than themselves.

New technologies and industries are booming, and they require skills that weren’t available thirty years ago. One McKinsey survey of young people and employers shows that in nine different countries, “40 percent of employers said lack of skills was the main reason for entry-level job vacancies.” 

Because most of these in-demand skills center on technology and science, Millennials and Gen Zers, AKA “digital natives,” have serious advantages when it comes to landing higher-level jobs.

Here are five tips on how to manage people older than you:

My first two tips relate to the assumptions we make about conflict.

1.    Don’t Assume that the Older Person Minds the Age Difference. 

There’s no need to apologize for being a young boss, or to assume it’s a problem. If you don’t sense concern or discomfort in your older employee, then don’t let your insecurities negatively affect the relationship. Some older workers actually like reporting to someone with a different generational perspective.

2.    Don’t Be Afraid to Be the Boss. 

Lead with confidence. There’s a reason you were chosen for your leadership role, so embrace it. Almost everyone respects a dedicated, warm and effective leader.

Now I’ll talk about what to do if you’ve noticed your age becoming an issue with the people you oversee. Sometimes you’ll notice direct comments from employees, and sometimes you’ll notice subtler expressions of resentment. Either way, it’s an issue you need to address.

3.    Spend One-on-one Time with the Person in Question.

Ask this person out for coffee or spend time at their cubicle. Try to learn their perspective on work, teams and technology. Ask them about their life outside of the office. Whatever the conversation topic, make sure you listen a lot and genuinely demonstrate an interest in building a relationship with this person.

4.    Focus on End Results and be Flexible on How People Accomplish Their Work.

With any new boss, younger or not, longtime employees often worry that the new leader will try to change everything, even things that are working well. 

You might find that older employees have different ways of working or completing assignments than from what you would do. Maybe it takes somebody a little bit longer to complete a task or a few tries to get things right. You probably don’t like being judged for your youth. Similarly, older colleagues don’t like being judged for their age. 

If you can tell your employees you don’t mind how the work gets done as long as it meets clear standards, your team members might feel more at ease under your leadership.

5.    If Necessary, Be Willing to Have a Difficult Conversation About Your Age Difference.

While you may never be beloved by every employee, you can explicitly ask for people’s respect. For example, you can say to a seemingly resentful employee, “I sense that you might be uncomfortable with me as your manager. Let’s talk about it. Or is there anything I can do to be a more effective manager for you?” 

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that Baby Boomers often wish younger employees were more comfortable with direct, face-to-face conversations. In my experience, both parties respect the other much more after direct, courteous conflict resolution.

Looking for more information on how to manage people older than you? Stream episode 5 of The Work Remix Podcast, “Age Has Nothing to Do with Being a Good Manager.”

In The Work Remix, I answer your questions about thriving in the workplace of today and tomorrow. Each episode offers advice combining classic business practices from the past with modern ways of working so that you can achieve your personal and organizational goals.

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