In early 2009, when Forbes combined its online and magazine staffs, I found myself reporting to a younger boss for the first time in my 30-year career. It wasn’t easy. I knew my boss was smart and digitally savvy, but I chafed in the deputy role. I admit it: I felt both superior and a touch disdainful, just because of the age difference.
I credit both of us for weathering those rocky first months together. My boss had to put up with not only my grumpy moods but also my cluelessness about basic dot-com skills like search engine optimization, linking and effective web headlines. Her communication style, of frequent e-mails and instant messaging, was totally different from my familiar mode of dropping by and chatting face-to- face with a boss.
According to human resource and career consultants, older workers are reporting to younger bosses more and more these days. A 2012 survey by the jobs website CareerBuilder found that 34% of workers reported that they currently work for a younger boss.
Technological changes have a lot to do with the trend. In my field, the rise of online content and social media means that we dinosaurs need to figure out how to get along with younger, wiser superiors.
To that end, I interviewed two consultants who have carved out a specialty in this area, and a psychologist, Billie A. Pivnick, who teaches in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.
Robin Throckmorton, co-author of Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More, encourages older workers to take the initiative and have a conversation with their boss about the boss’s favored mode of communication. (One demerit for me: My boss asked me to set up an instant messaging account. I felt overwhelmed and never did.)
Claire Raines, co-author of Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace, agrees that older workers should adapt to a younger boss’s communication style rather than try to fight or change it. Older workers have a lot to learn about things like the difference between texting and e-mail.
A tip: Young people assume that a missed cellphone call serves the same purpose as a voicemail message asking for a call back. It makes sense. Who wants to sit there forever while a tedious automated voice drones, “Please wait for the tone before recording your message …”
Even when older workers make an effort to learn new modes of communication, they shouldn’t expect reciprocity, Raines advises. You need to adopt your boss’s habits. Don’t expect her to learn yours.
Throckmorton and Raines agree that older workers shouldn’t assume that their age wins them respect from a younger supervisor. “You have to earn that respect,” says Throckmorton. Another common misplaced assumption: that the young boss wants or needs parenting or mentoring. Older workers have a tendency to hover, Throckmorton observes. “That doesn’t work,” she notes.
As a psychologist, Pivnick says the relationship between a younger boss and an older underling raises issues of dominance and submission. Her advice: “Redefine submission to mean surrender.” Older workers should work to accept the situation and let go of any resentments. Instead, strategize for success. Observe your boss’s management style and try to flow with it. Figure out ways to make your boss look good. If she’s ultra competitive, do your best to work as a team player. If your boss is a clueless type who got there because she’s the founder’s granddaughter or she has a close relationship with a board member, she’s going to need you to show her the ropes. Do your best, Pivnick suggests, and hope that her gratitude will get you a promotion.
After six months, I was reassigned to a boss who is older than I am. I admit the relationship has been much easier for me than reporting to someone younger. As for my younger boss, it so happens she landed a fabulous job at another media company that was a big step up the ladder for her.
This story is an update of a story that ran previously.
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