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Managing older employees: 3 worries you should put to rest


Managing older employees with more experience can be nerve-racking for young managers.

Will they think I’m unprepared? Am I in over my head? Would they rather have an older manager?

It’s likely the younger leaders in your organization are having these thoughts, or have had them at one time or another, as they take on supervisory roles with teams of varied ages – from Generation Z to baby boomers.

Millennials are fast becoming one of the largest demographic groups in the American workforce, with Gen Z hot on their heels. As these younger workers climb the career ladder, many may be managing employees who are much older and more experienced than they are.

So, how can you help your younger managers be more confident and successful as leaders?

First, it’s critical to make sure they’re ready for the role, and to coach them as they transition into leadership. It’s also helpful to understand the doubts that can derail their progress.

Here are some common fears that plague younger workers managing older coworkers who have more experience, and suggestions for overcoming them:

1. “I don’t have all the answers”

Younger employees don’t have the tenure at a company – that insider knowledge and history – that older, more-experienced employees have.

They might not know, for example, the story behind the tension between sales and customer service, or why it’s important to include certain individuals in the decision-making process. That can be unsettling for younger managers who believe leaders should know everything there is to know.

Ways to overcome:

Emphasize that it’s not a manager’s responsibility to have all the answers, but to ask the right questions and find solutions.

Encourage younger managers to consider more-tenured employees as a resource. By tapping into this segment of the workforce, they’ll be able to gain insight on things like:

  • The organization as a whole, along with its history and traditions
  • The dynamics between departments and teams
  • How they work together to achieve the overall goals of the organization.

More-tenured employees offer valuable company perspective that new managers won’t get anywhere else.

2. “They won’t respect me because of my age”

It’s natural for younger managers to feel insecure about their age, especially if the employees they manage are the same age as their parents or older. Fortunately, professionalism and respect are not age-dependent.

Ways to overcome:

Remind less-experienced managers that respect doesn’t automatically come with age – it’s earned. So, whatever their age, they have the same opportunity to earn respect as a more seasoned supervisor.

Advise younger leaders to project confidence, not arrogance. This can be an easy mistake for managers of all ages trying to assert their leadership.

Be professional and communicate honestly. The good thing about respect is that it’s a two-way street: When you show respect to others, you usually get it back in return. It’s important to keep in mind:

  • Age is even less likely to become a barrier to leadership if younger managers respect the expertise of their more-experienced employees.
  • Most experienced workers are used to having a manager supervise them, regardless of age.
  • Some tenured workers may have consciously opted out of a management role, preferring to focus instead on their area of expertise.

By the same token, insecurity isn’t limited to the younger, less-experienced crowd. If you have an older employee who hasn’t been receptive to younger leadership, consider the possibility that they might fear their past successes won’t be recognized or valued.

It’s wise to help younger managers appreciate and acknowledge the skills their more-experienced direct reports bring to the table. Showing them how to reassure all team members that their contributions are indeed valued can position young leaders to communicate successfully across generations.

3. “They’re ________ (too rigid, negative, bad with technology)”

Younger managers often fall into the common trap of applying generational stereotypes to older or more-experienced employees.

They may fear that their older colleagues are inexperienced with technology or are reluctant to put in extra time (as they care for growing families or near retirement). Or they might be thinking the seasoned veterans on the team will be resistant to new ideas and initiatives.

Ways to overcome:

Urge younger managers to question their assumptions and have honest conversations with their employees to help break down generational stereotypes.

  • Older employees may not be digital natives like millennials or Gen Z-ers, but many have a firm grasp on technology. They may just use it differently.

For example, maybe they prefer keeping up with their professional network via LinkedIn, rather than posting what they ate for breakfast on Instagram.

  • Older or more-experienced employees are probably willing to work just as hard as their younger counterparts, but how they achieve a goal or meet a deadline may look different.

For example, they may prefer to use careful time management to finish a key project during normal hours with minimum overtime, rather than pulling an all-nighter to finish that project.

  • What may sound like negative feedback could actually be a healthy dose of realism that can help younger managers avoid costly pitfalls on an important project.

For example, an experienced employee’s candor about an unreliable vendor could help the team avoid future inconveniences and missed deadlines.

The takeaway

Millennials and Gen Z have their unique qualities. They’re less tolerant of traditional hierarchy and more committed to flexible work hours through work-life integration. And, of course, they’re usually skilled technology users.

But, while we often think there’s a great divide between the generations and their preferred leadership style, we’re all more alike than we realize. Most of us struggle a bit with our leadership style when we’re just starting out as people leaders.

Research shows that millennials are not that different from previous generations at similar points in their careers. In fact, as leaders climb the management ladder, they rate their effectiveness at mastering leadership skills higher, according to the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, published by DDI, The Conference Board, and EY.

When guiding younger managers on how to lead, it’s important to focus on the similarities they have with their employees, no matter what their age, in order to enhance communication, build consensus and work together as a team.

All employees want to be respected for their expertise and valued for their contributions. Most also share the common desire to collaborate and achieve their goals to ensure their organization is successful.

That’s the bottom line, regardless of age.

For more tips on how to nurture and support the next generation of leaders in your organization, download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to leadership and management.