What to do when you work for a much younger boss

Written by Wendy Squires for Australian Seniors.  

She teetered uneasily on her stilt-like heels as she led me down a hallway into an office so familiar I almost took the editor’s chair out of habit. Then, it happened. The young girl I had assumed was the office assistant took the chair opposite me – the boss’s spot! – and began a speech that left my jaw on the floor. 

“So, what I would like you to do is to interview some people, sprinkle those quotes throughout the story,” she said. “That’s after you write an introduction, which are the paragraphs at the top...”

Yep, this woman, who would have been a foetus when I hung up my handbag after editing several high-profile magazines, told me how to write a story as a freelance journalist. I have shoes older than this girl who is now telling me how to do my job. 

Be open minded to change and adapt in the workplace 

When I related this story to my friend Meredith Fuller, a psychologist who authored Working With Mean Girls, she laughed at my horror then said something I didn’t expect: “Don’t believe you still know it all. You can and will learn from these girls if you keep an open mind. You don’t want to be one of those older people in the workplace who can’t adapt. You will give the rest of us a bad name!”

Of course, Meredith was right. Yes, my attitude was one of superiority when I should have been grateful these young editors still felt I was of value, especially considering all the stories of over 50s workers being overlooked. 

A 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission  report found 58% of us expect to retire at 66 (compared with 42% in 2014), and 20% at 71 or older (up from 16%). And while this may seem gloomy, there is good news. The study found 63% of respondents today classify an older worker as over 61, not the 50 mark commonly cited. Even better, more than one in three believe there is no difference between older and younger workers’ IT skills, and 76% of bosses value the experience older workers bring.

This is no surprise to Meredith, who counsels both employers and employees. “What I see is that clever, self-aware young bosses who understand what we older employees bring to the role – career experience, managerial and financial know-how – do want to hire us.”

However, Meredith admits insecure or “fear” bosses also exist, and can be challenged by older workers who may have more skills than they do. 

“This kind of boss suffers anxiety about appearing perfect. They are terrified of being shown up and, as such, may avoid hiring those who could expose them as the frauds they feel they are. These types of bosses are the real backward-thinking dinosaurs as today, businesses are looking towards hiring managers with strong people skills.”

How to partner successfully with a younger boss

Meredith has advice for those of us who may feel patronised by younger bosses and that is to use what we have that younger people often don’t – diplomatic communication skills. “If a boss is saying you don’t have the skills, point out what a fast learner you are and what a privilege it would be to be taught.” 

Likewise, she suggests younger bosses show older employees respect by not discounting the skills they have accumulated. 

I listened to Meredith’s advice when dealing with my young boss and lo and behold now regard her as a mentor, as she does me. She has shown me such valuable skills as Search Engine Optimisation and how to navigate the digital content system, WordPress. 

I, in turn, have shown her ways to write clear briefs and solicit edits and rewrites. Oh, and how to walk confidently in high heels (it’s all about where the heel is placed and its width). I found my new editor is an old soul and she believes I am perennially young at heart. We make a good team. 

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