Time Warp: My Boss is Half My Age

Q: I’ve been in banking for over 30 years and worked with all sorts of people, all kinds of bosses. But I think I’ve met my match with my current boss. He doesn’t seem to think it matters that he was born the year I graduated from high school. He acts like he knows everything about banking and expects me to follow his lead. I know he’s the boss and all, but I’ve had a lot of experience in the industry and he should respect that, right? Besides, how am I supposed to work for someone who’s never heard of Archie Bunker?

A: Think of it this way. While the 1970s did give us “Saturday Night Fever” (disco ball and all), some things are best left there – like Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil and Archie Bunker. We learned from our mistakes once. No need to repeat them.

It’s a natural part of aging. The people around you get younger. It happens gradually. First you notice the mail carrier and you have more in common. Then you notice your doctor has more hair than you and none of it is gray or growing out of his nose and ears. You wonder how he could possibly know anything about medicine. But the thing is this: He actually does know a lot about medicine, and because he’s young, he’s not forgetting it yet.

The same can probably be said for your young boss. While it’s unfortunate he’s never poured himself into polyester pants and saluted the disco ball with his “Stayin’ Alive” moves, chances are he is adept at the latest trends and market developments in the banking world. And remember, it’s challenging for both of you. While you bristle at reporting to someone who never knew Archie, he probably feels like he’s bossing around his dad, which might make him feel awkward, or even disrespectful. On the other hand, he has bosses, too, and he has to deliver.

You aren’t alone. A 2014 survey for CareerBuilder reported that 38 percent of Americans were working for younger bosses, an increase of 4 percent in just two years. Officially termed “status incongruence,” where the subordinate is older or has greater education, experience or tenure than the boss, the situation often creates challenges. Orlando Richard of the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas found that older employees reporting to younger bosses have trouble developing a connection and loyalty to the employer, dramatically impacting commitment to the job. On the flip side, the younger boss suffers from the belief that the older employee is waiting for him to mess up, drop the ball or otherwise fail.

What should you do? First, quit talking about the old days and see what you can learn from him. Ask for his input more often than you tell him what you think. You’ve got the strategic advantage of having been-there-done-that when it comes to office drama, so drop back and assess the situation, deploy patience and figure out his work style and preferences.

Even Archie begrudgingly understood that aging in the workplace has its challenges, saying: “They just wanna get rid of us old guys, put us out to pasture. Well I ain’t ready to be pasteurized!” You’re not either, so use those well-honed skills of respect and mutual understanding. They work every time.

Q: The election is over already! I read the papers, watch the news, and get all those alerts on my phone telling me about the chaos in Washington. But do I have to listen to it at work, too? It’s been a year and the favorite water-cooler conversation in the office continues to be political. Many of my co-workers have political views that differ from mine, which makes it particularly difficult for me to listen to their constant ranting without blowing a gasket. Help!

A: I bet your mother taught you what mine taught me: Politics and religion should never be discussed at the dinner table. The same should be said for the workplace, don’t you think?

The 2016 election was one for the ages, and with Hillary Clinton’s book now out, we seem to be litigating it all over again. Add to that the ongoing debates on health care, global disasters and the threat of North Korea, and it’s hard to find good news these days.

You are not alone in your angst and frustration. An American Psychological Association survey earlier this year found that more than 25 percent of workers report stress, decreased productivity and a negative impact from all the workplace political banter. Another study by an employee analytics firm found that to avoid conflict, more than a third of employees dodge the topic altogether when at work or with colleagues.

Your first stop should be the human resources department, of course. Chances are there’s a policy in your workplace manual that addresses issues like this, perhaps something about respecting differences of opinion and not using the workplace to garner support for issues beyond the job’s requirements. If not, perhaps you can sway your HR manager to put something in place and issue a gentle reminder that such discussions are proven to hurt productivity.

What can you do tomorrow and the day after, while waiting for HR to come up with something that may or may not help? Change the subject. Perhaps you can remind your colleagues that politics already dominates the news, so maybe office chit-chat could wander elsewhere – how about UH football or surfing or even work-stuff? Remember, you’ll be more effective if you keep your request neutral. It’s not their views you want to silence; it’s the entire area of discussion.

In the meantime, check out Heineken’s viral ad, Worlds Apart, where people with drastically different political views find common ground assembling a table and sharing a couple of beers. “Life isn’t black and white after all,” one man observes after realizing his views and that of his new friend are quite opposed. Chances are you and your colleagues have more in common than you think. Try steering the conversations in those directions, for a change. Maybe you’ll crack the code that gets us listening to each other rather than screaming at each other. And that, my friend, would be a good day’s work.

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