Working for a Younger Boss

Can the generation gap be bridged when our jobs depend on it?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

The Generation Gap

You head to work on a Monday morning knowing you’re about to meet the new boss. Is your stomach doing flip-flops? No? What about learning that your new boss is named Heather and that she is barely 30? Welcome to the brave new world of working for a younger boss — sometimes much younger — just as we’re hitting our career stride.

As a generation, we owned the turf of being the first and the youngest. A lot of us found it addictive; I know I did. At 21, I was the youngest woman in my university’s administration; at 32, the youngest head of advertising for Avon. At 39, I was one of the youngest women ever named CEO of a national ad agency. I still live in a bubble of disbelief that I’m no longer the prodigy, even though my business partners max out at 32. But Generation X, and now Y, are hot on our heels, and inevitably, we find ourselves reporting to them. Does this mean we’ve lost our brash edge, or worse, hit the top of our curve?

I asked MORE readers to weigh in and learned that the issue is more complex than it looks. The big question seems to be, how much younger is the boss? Too close to our own age for comfort (why don’t I have the job?) or so young that we don’t understand the watercooler chat? Is the problem the up-and-coming "them," or is it our own hang-ups or our fear that we’ve peaked? The answers lie in asking who we’ve grown to be and what our goals are now.

What We Know That They Don’t

JoAnn Peroutka, 46, a marketing consultant in Baltimore, Maryland, was caught in the same time warp I was. At 29, she had been one of the youngest VPs in her financial services firm. "Being the youngest means different things for different women," she says. "Some play up the ingenue role, while others — like me — want to catch up to what the big kids are doing. I enjoyed being a prodigy. But that doesn’t last forever."

When Peroutka joined a new firm at 41, her boss and peers were a few years younger than she, and initially she was fine with it. But she hit a glitch when they all started worrying about turning 40. "There was lots of hoopla and angst about their ‘big’ birthday," she says, "and I was uncomfortable because I felt out of the loop, even though I don’t think they gave a hoot about my age."

Then her wisdom kicked in. "I just sat back and thought, ‘They have no idea how good things are about to get,’" Peroutka says. "Forty was when my confidence finally caught up with my mouth. I was expressing the same opinions, but I had the experience to back them up."

Now a consultant, Peroutka often serves clients in their 20s and 30s. "I’ve found younger managers to be very open to information, as long as it’s relayed in a peer-to-peer way and not doled out with an attitude of been there, done that," she says. "There comes a point when all the ages run together, and you don’t care if you’re going through boot-cut jeans and platforms for the first or the second time."

The Dinosaur Syndrome

Working for a slightly younger boss is one thing; working for someone who was in diapers when you were in college is another. When Lee Weal, 52, of Philadelphia, interviewed for a job as an administrative assistant, she met with a supervisor about her age. She assumed her boss would be too, but on her first day of work, she learned that not only was she expected to support five people instead of the promised three, nearly all of them, including her supervisor, were in their 20s or early 30s.

More than the workload, Weal hated being the oldest in the office. "Nearly everyone spoke in that Valley Girl manner, where every sentence is a question: ‘You put the files here? And then you make copies? And then you distribute them to the partners?’ It drove me mad," she recalls.

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