Coping with a younger boss

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.

Louisa Barrett, 54, worked as a lecturer in education at a university in the south west 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. 

Barrett 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," says Barrett. "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, Barrett 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 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 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."

Written by Angela Neustatter. This feature first appeared in Saga Magazine.

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.