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How to Work for a (Much) Younger Boss

Getting mad that a kid’s in charge gets you nowhere

Baby bottle with World's Best Boss written on the side
Paul Spella (Source: Getty Images)

Most of us grew up believing older folks always had the authority. But “seniority” hasn’t been a thing for a long time. In fact, younger people managing older workers has become so common that academics even slapped a name on it: “age-inverse supervisory relationships.”

“America is a youth-oriented culture,” says Rick Brinkman, M.D., coauthor of the management classic Dealing With People You Can’t Stand. “Other cultures like Japan and India have rigid age hierarchies, but here it’s common to want younger people in positions of authority. Whether that works or not, it all comes down to how you react to it.”

That reaction is often … unproductive. A recent University of Cambridge study of 61 companies showed the difference in age-inverse supervisory situations was directly related to negative emotions. The larger the age gap — the younger the boss and the older the employee — the more likely the subordinate will have feelings of “anger, fear and disgust.”

So how to deal with a Doogie Howser in charge? Brinkman recommends looking at yourself rather than your boss.

Are you comparing your skills to your boss’?

“This is tied right to ego,” Brinkman says. “It might not be as much of an issue if you have very different jobs — you’re a first baseman and your boss is a pitcher. But it’s tough comparing yourself to another and coming up short.”

It’s an a) or b) situation.

  1. If you can honestly say you have the better skill set, how can you help your boss? Are you willing to teach one for the team? Are you willing to approach them and share information? Are you willing to help them improve?
  2. If your boss is an ace in your field, what can you learn from this younger person? What can they show you about doing your job better? That’s the ego test.

Have you tried ‘blending’ in?

“It’s about rapport,” says Brinkman. Or, rather, finding common ground with your boss. Learning you grew up in the same place or realizing you follow the same teams are examples of blending.

Brinkman once had a patient dealing with a grumpy employee who intimidated her. “Everyone had pictures of family on their desks, but he had a picture of a T-Bird. I told her to ask about the car,” he says. “When she did, he lit up — ‘This is a 1964 Thunderbird blah blah blah.’ It completely changed the relationship.”

Every little piece of rapport builds on itself, he says, like a drop in a bucket that moves the relationship in the right direction.

What are your intentions?

People can read intent very easily, says Brinkman. What do your conversations with your boss sound like? Simple friendliness and enthusiasm in tone could change the dynamic. Look for opportunities to acknowledge when they do something good.

“Communication is like a phone number — you need all the digits in the right order to connect,” says Brinkman. “Intent is like the area code — it gets you in the right vicinity.”

Bottom line

You control much of the positivity between you and your young boss. That means even if you remain in a subordinate role, you both can give the other a “promotion” of respect.