My friend Mitch was recently promoted to restaurant manager, and we’re all really proud of him. He’s a natural leader, people-focused, caring, and he’s worked hard to get to where he is today. But there’s this one guy on his team who he’s really struggling with. Let’s call him Dave.
Dave is in his late 40s, set in his ways, and hates being managed by 27-year-old Mitch. He makes derogatory comments about Mitch’s age, purposefully botches jobs, and goes out of his way to do the opposite of what he’s been asked.
Mitch isn’t the only one in this situation. Some Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are now 37, and many are already in management positions. What’s more, according to a study by American Express, Millennials will account for 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. In fact, in Europe and the U.S., they are already the largest generation in work.
Overcoming Negative Stereotypes
One of the problems with intergenerational management is that some of us simply can’t get past the stereotypes.
There’s the Baby Boomers, for starters. Yes… those cynical, promotion-driven dinosaurs, who can’t work a smartphone. Then we come to Generation X. Privileged slackers – surely a result of the 1960s counterculture enjoyed by their parents. Next, it’s the Millennials. Entitled, disloyal, unable to take criticism, and unwilling to pay for, well, anything. And finally, we have Generation Z. Frankly, they’re the worst of the lot. They’re so addicted to their phones, tablets and consoles that they can’t even hold a conversation.
But, just like all stereotypes, these examples are toxic, downright discriminatory, and usually wrong. Nonetheless, frustrations still exist between the generations in some workplaces.
Having a Boss Half Your Age
For the first time ever, we’ve got five different generations all working together. On the one hand, that’s great, because we can access a multitude of different skills, experiences and perspectives. But, on the other, the variations in their backgrounds and expectations can lead to conflict.
The clear-cut career paths of older generations, for instance, have changed dramatically in recent years. Being a “company man” is no longer the norm. Instead, Millennials tend to “job hop” until they find the right fit. They want flexible working hours. And they’re replacing traditional hierarchical structures with flatter organizations and an entrepreneurial start-up culture.
The influx of young high-achievers into the workplace, all filled with positivity, hope and purpose, may cause older workers to feel jealous or demoralized. Especially if a Millennial gets promoted over them, or mishandles a tricky situation such as delivering negative feedback, leading a negotiation, or addressing poor performance.
Take Moira, for example. She’s 67, and she has worked at London’s Heathrow Airport for decades. But recently she’s been given a new supervisor, Margaret, who’s just turned 31. According to Moira, “She’s condescending and treats me and my friends like dinosaurs. She’s angry if I don’t already know new things. Since she’s taken over, I’ve felt increasingly left out, and it’s divided what was a nice team. I’ve begun to think, ‘Why am I here?’ and it’s made me feel sad and insecure. I’m considering changing teams actually, to get away.”
What Challenges Do Younger Bosses Face?
First of all, don’t mistake Millennials’ integrity for entitlement. They watched their parents struggle through the recessions of the 1990s and late 2000s. Many of them have built up huge debts to pay for education and housing. All of this has pushed them to think in totally new ways.
For them, work is less about the bottom line and more about fulfillment, creativity and happiness. According to the study by American Express, 62 percent of U.S. Millennials said that success means enjoying your work.
Millennials have grown up experimenting, self-teaching, and accepting failure as part of success. Never mind degrees and spending years at respectable firms – Millennial managers favor talent, passion and open-mindedness. They want to work for people whose values align with their own. They respect a hunger to learn, not a claim that you know everything already.
And they want to relate to your personal brand, which Generation Xers and Baby Boomers can find odd or uncomfortable. Unlike older bosses, who may have liked you to take things off their hands, Millennials want to be involved in your decision-making process, and to be kept “in the loop.”
Millennials Managing Older Workers
Whatever you think about them, Millennial managers offer a fresh perspective. They bring in new performance metrics, new goals, new processes, more feedback, and more learning. And, yes, that means a lot of change. But it’s change that could benefit you.
Millennials place greater importance on work-life balance, for example. They value emotional intelligence. They care about the people they manage, and they’re less likely to kick up a fuss if one of the kids is sick or you need to work from home.
Let’s return to Moira. She’s moved to a different team and has a new supervisor, whose name is Dustin. He’s 29. Since moving to his team, Moira’s been feeling a lot more positive, and her performance has improved. And it’s all to do with Dustin. Moira explains, “He’s always willing to sit and help you with the new tech we need to use. Previously I’ve found it quite difficult to get to grips with. But he’s patient and he doesn’t make me feel silly about not knowing how it works. I’ve even bought a cardboard virtual reality headset to use outside of work!”
Another benefit of having a Millennial for a manager is that they tend to be less about rules and controlling people, and more about teamwork, collaboration and creativity. The American Express study reveals that 57 percent of Millennials believe an organization should be democratic, while 92 percent want to invest in developing their employees.
What Generations Can Learn From One Another
The study also shows that 76 percent of Millennials believe that older generations offer a valuable learning opportunity. Almost half (49 percent) of Generation Xers feel this way about Millennials, too.
Penny’s one of them. She’s 43 and works at a college. “My old boss, Natalie, was 29, and I always felt she appreciated my experience and knowledge. In turn, I embraced her data-led, labor-saving approaches, and her supportive management style. She encouraged me to open up and be more creative, and she made me excited about my job again.”
Sharing knowledge like this builds respect, and it can also enhance job satisfaction. As storyboard artist, Angus, 50, explains, “The younger managers that I have are often happy for me to contribute ideas. Working with young creatives like this helps me to stay relevant, and I feel more positive about my career prospects. On the flip side, my lengthy experience means that I’ve been there and seen it. This can limit risks, and minimize the chance of expensive mistakes being made. It’s great, as long as both sides park their preconceptions at the door, have an open mind, and appreciate what the other side brings to the table. You won’t catch me in rolled-up skinny chinos, though!”
Are You Managed by Someone Older or Younger?
If you’re finding it tough, there are a few things you can try to help bridge the generational gap at work:
1. Keep calm. Whoever your manager or colleague is, he or she got the job because he’s good! Sure, his promotion means change, which can be scary. But being out of your comfort zone could be a good thing. Try not to react emotionally. Keep your feelings in check and give him time to prove himself. Remember that bad feeling can spread, and fracture team morale.
2. Communicate properly. In the words of the great Jimi Hendrix, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” Just because someone’s older or younger than you, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have anything in common, or that her opinion doesn’t matter. Try to find some common ground. This will help to build trust and rapport. And don’t hide behind your computer screen – face-to-face communication is essential when you’re getting to know someone.
3. Value everybody. Prove that you’re not a stereotype, too! Older isn’t always better or worse. So, drop the ego, treat everyone as an equal, and pay attention to people’s individual needs and motivations. Encourage them to showcase their unique qualities, and make it a priority to listen and learn from them.
4. Ask for help. Be honest about the problems you face, whatever your age. And seek advice! According to American Express, 68 percent of Generation Xers want to be mentors (a higher proportion than any other generation). Remember, asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It means that you are willing and able to learn.
Do you work in a multi-generational workplace? What have you learned from working with other generations? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, below.