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Coping with a younger boss

18 February 2020

In the office minefield of how to cope with a manager who may be many years your junior, Angela Neustatter reveals how older workers can find fulfilment by sharing their knowledge and experience. Plus, read our guide on how to avoid and combat age discrimination in the workplace.

Young manager
Working with a younger boss needn't be a negative experience

Louisa, 54, worked as a lecturer at a university where the majority of lecturers in her department were women in their fifties. The 55-year-old female head of the department was replaced by a man just turned 40.

Louisa recalls: "He was an ambitious, fast-talking man who flirted with younger women but seemed ill at ease with older women. He made it very clear he wanted men under him."

"It very quickly became plain that he didn't see older women as having value," she says. "He started out by coming into the department saying this is rubbish, the place needs to change. There was no attempt to find out what people were doing, or to get to know them. I couldn't help feeling he saw himself as the new broom and us as the old dust."

So it was particularly gratifying, Louisa says, being headhunted for a professorship with another university, but she still hears "tales from the front telling me how unhappy the women I worked with, and who have been there for years, are now."

Rationalise your situation

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Anthony Fry has, for many years, worked with people in the workplace and among the problems they regularly present are the sense of threat that comes with being put under a boss perhaps 15 years younger than they are.

"One response is that they drive themselves ever harder and harder trying to find ways to prove they are as good as anyone half their age. Of course, they may become very stressed and fraught and, in fact, less efficient at their work. That can cause a lot of distress."

It is a subject close to Dr Fry's heart, he says with a wry guffaw, explaining: "I am a doctor of 63 looking at doctors 20 years younger and way ahead of me with technology and new techniques I may not know. But I have to tell myself very firmly this does not mean I have nothing to offer. I have seen thousands of patients in my time and my repertoire may lead me to understand very unusual cases, to understand where a younger person doesn't.

"So it is very important that older people try to rationalise the situation, look at how they can be friends or at least a good colleague to a young boss, and from this perspective they can offer their wealth of experience. And more than likely it will be welcomed."

The benefits of older employees and their experience

Older workers who have often been made redundant and land another job usually find a younger boss easier to deal with. 

Barry Badham and Ray Steele set up Dinosaurs Unlimited in 2001 to help place older employees. Badham says: "They know they cannot expect to go into a company at the level they were and they are also aware that they probably will be reporting to someone younger. It is, of course, very different to having someone young promoted over you.

"There are quite a lot of older employees who are not competing to rise up the career ladder, but just want the stimulus and social engagement of the workplace - and these people frequently become mentors to younger employees, even to their bosses. 

"People who have held fairly responsible jobs in the past will often be able to help a much less experienced youngster work through difficulties, things he or she doesn't understand."

Feel you are being overlooked at work because of your age? Is your boss putting pressure on you to retire? If so, what are the rules on age discrimination in the workplace - and what are the rights of older people?

Read our simple guide to help you understand your rights regarding age discrimination at work, plus tips on where you can turn to for help if you believe you are a victim of age discrimination:

What do you need to know about the rules on age discrimination at work?

First and foremost, remember that age discrimination at work is against the law. It is unlawful to discriminate against someone at work on the basis of age, thanks to the introduction of the Equality Act 2010.

And you are no longer obliged to retire at what used to be the default retirement age of 65, which has itself been abolished.

Age discrimination legislation is designed to protect not only people in employment, but also to prevent discrimination on the grounds of age for people seeking work and those in training.

Read our tips on job hunting after you hit 50

The law against age discrimination applies to companies of all sizes, large and small. Length of service of an employee is irrelevant, too. Whether you've just started a job, or whether you've been in the job for a long time, no matter, it is still against the law to discriminate against someone because of their age.

Are there any scenarios where you could be forced to retire?

Compulsory retirement of individuals is unlawful based on age, although some employers may seek to find what is known as an 'objective justification' to do so.

The burden of proof rests, however, with the employer. In line with the Equality Act, employers must demonstrate that the reasons for discrimination are both what is known as 'legitimate' and 'proportionate'.

A legitimate justification, for example, could be in a physically taxing job, such as the fire service, where there may be health and safety implications or a risk to people's welfare should someone continue working.

The particular needs of a business, such as efficiency, or training requirements for a certain role, can also sometimes be used by employers as an exception to the rule. But to do this, the onus is heavily on the employer to prove that any legitimate aim is achieved by proportionate means, and that all other avenues which involve less, or preferably no, discrimination have already been fully explored.

What types of potential age discrimination should you be aware of?

You should be mindful of four key areas where age discrimination could occur. Firstly, there is 'direct discrimination'. This is where someone is discriminated against on account of their age, or the age they could appear to be.

Secondly, 'indirect discrimination' can take place when working practices are skewed in favour of one particular age group, to the detriment of people from other age ranges.

'Harassment' and 'victimisation' are the third and fourth areas where you might have grounds for claiming discrimination based on age. Harassment in the workplace could be when an employee's dignity is adversely affected by the actions of others or, with in the creation of a hostile work environment. Employees could also cite victimisation if they believe they have been treated badly, as a result of making or supporting an age discrimination claim.

Where can you find help if you think you're a victim of age discrimination at work?

Before considering the option of an employment tribunal, in the first instance it's best to try to nip any alleged discrimination in the bud at work by talking to your manager or a representative of your company's human resources department. Make sure you put your complaint in writing - and keep a copy for yourself.

After this, your employer is obliged to set up a meeting to discuss your grievance. Make sure you take along a colleague or union representative to the meeting. Your boss should then reply to you in writing, suggesting solutions to help resolve the issue.

You should also contact your local Citizens Advice centre, and get in touch with employment dispute mediators Acas via their helpline (0300 123 1100) for independent conciliation advice.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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