Gen Y Management: Managing people your own age and older

For the oldest Gen Yers who are five-plus years into careers, many are making the jump into management very early on.

The causes for this are many:

  • Boomers starting to retire after a recession-based delay
  • Gen Xers low numbers mean fewer qualified candidates to take leadership positions
  • Boomers retiring at once, when previously they filled multiple management tiers, opening several spots along the ladder
  • Technology-based businesses finding Gen Yers have equivalent skills in tech, and maybe will accept lower salaries than a person a decade older
  • Driven Gen Yers have been prepping for a career since high school and many are entering the workforce with more experience than generations past

However, the most difficult part for Gen Yers isn’t getting to that spot, it’s succeeding in it. They may be managing people who are of the same generation, and often people who are 10, 20, even 30 years older. What is a Gen Y manager to do?

Managing Gen YTips for managing people your own age:

  • Try really hard not to try to be friends with your “age cohorts
  • It’s ok to take an interest in your employee’s personal lives, but it’s your responsibility to define the line — no talk of drinking, partying, relationship issues or money — something you might do with a peer but not with a subordinate
  • Don’t expect respect — earn it. It’s easy to look like the one person who just kissed up enough to get the spot, or got lucky. Demonstrate why you got the position.
  • Use your power for good. Become an advocate for the cultural values of your generation and help create a great work environment for Gen Y.
  • One promotion doesn’t mean you lose the ability to be a good team player. Put in the hours supporting your team even if you don’t “have to” any more. It will earn their respect.
  • Lose your ego a little. The quicker you climb the ladder in comparison to people your age, the easier it is to forget how much you still have to learn.

When managing people who are older than you, reverse ageism is very common. The worst example I heard recently was when a 50-something manager met a 28-year-old manager in person. The two had worked together for years via phone & email. The 50-something welcomed the 28-year-old with, “Damn, son, I thought you’d be older.” Talk about demeaning.

Without completely unpacking all of the societal and cultural reasons why older workers may resent a young boss, it’s important to have strategies and phrases to use when situations like that one come up.

  • Respond to direct conflict like this one with a humble, concise and confident assertion of your qualifications, i.e. “Yes, it’s hard to believe I’ve already been with the company for almost 10 years, in so many different positions. I’ve learned a lot.”
  • Older workers are no different than younger ones — taking an interest in people’s lives, whether they are expecting children or grandchildren, is always important
  • Take special care to recognize expertise and call on older employees for advice and wisdom. You’ll probably learn something and they will feel valued.
  • Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by calling out your perceived inexperience. You know you are qualified for your position so stay strong in it.
  • Find a mentor who is outside of your team or department. Previously you may have looked to your 40-50 year old managerial colleagues for advice and mentorship, but when you are at their level it might be smart to look outside, simply to avoid any focus on your age by people you work with daily.
  • Dress the part. Work on improving your work wardrobe to better reflect your seniority. I’m not saying a 28 year old should wear the same Dockers as a 60 year old, but pick up an issue of GQ and look sharp. For women, get rid of cheap materials, worn shoes and invest in a nice watch and a few nice pieces of classic jewelry.

As more Gen Yers continue to jump into the management ranks, it’s an important discussion to continue and help each other navigate. What tips would you give Gen Y managers? What pitfalls should we avoid? Would love your comments!


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