Maybe it happened overnight when you jumped into a new job. Or maybe it snuck up on you, as coworkers left or retired and were replaced by younger counterparts. One day you look around and realize: “OMG, I’m the oldest person in the office.”
While it can be disconcerting to have all your pop culture references met with blank stares, being the office fogy doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Here, how to survive and thrive when you’re surrounded by younger co-workers — and bosses.
Avoid making comparisons.
In many fields, times have changed and “paying your dues” for years is no longer par for the course as it might have been when you were younger. Today there’s really no such thing as a typical career path, and just because your colleague has 10 years of experience to your 20 doesn’t mean he or she can’t do the job. Try to think back to how much you might have been capable of doing, rather than how much responsibility you were actually given.
Respect their value.
Don’t conflate age and skills. Stereotypes exist for every generation, and just as you wouldn’t want your younger coworkers to assume you’re technology averse or out of touch, they don’t want you to assume they’re entitled or unqualified. If you’re bristling at reporting to a younger boss, try to analyze why it makes you uncomfortable. Is it honestly that they don’t have the experience for the job — or is it your own ego talking?
Remove your mom hat.
Lecturing your colleagues about how to do their jobs (or worse, live their personal lives) isn’t going to win you any support. Even if you’re old enough to be their mom, try to recognize that you each have wisdom to share.
“In many companies, the younger employees (and bosses) often have stronger DQ (digital intelligence) while the older employees have stronger EQ (emotional intelligence),” says entrepreneur and author Chip Conley. “Consider the exchange a trade agreement,” rather than a teacher-student model.
Cultivate meaningful relationships.
Having friends at the office can make work feel like less of a chore, but relationships may not form as easily with colleagues who are in different life stages. Instead of focusing on your differences, try to focus on what you have in common — after all, you work for the same company and may be in the same field. What are your shared passions?
If you have heavy responsibilities at home while your colleagues are free to socialize after work, it’s easy to feel left out. Try to carve out time, whether it’s a Friday coffee date or once-a-week happy hour, to get to know them as people rather than “kids these days.”
Take advantage of your tenure.
One of the most valuable things about being older is you’ve had more years to grow your network, so don’t forget to nurture those existing connections. And if you have an old contact that you know could help a younger colleague, make an introduction. It will build up your reputation in their eyes by showing how well-connected (and well-regarded) you are in your field.
Become a “mentern.”
In his new book, “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder,” Conley says that midlife is the time for mutual mentorship — being both the mentor and the intern in a work relationship. “This is the future of the workplace now that we have five generations at work at the same time,” he says.
According to Conley, “interning publicly and mentoring privately” can be a good strategy. “That meant that I often asked empathetic, curious questions in meetings to those who knew more than I did about a specific subject,” he says. “But when I wanted to give feedback to someone, I always did it in private.”