Generations are colliding at the office—and in the
ILLUSTRATION BY ROB DOBI FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Rachel Feintzeig
Aug. 20, 2023 9:00 pm ET
Congrats, you’re the boss. The only problem is your team knows more than you.
“You could be my granddaughter,” Jasmine T. Clarke, a 43-year-old program
manager in New York’s Hudson Valley, once heard from a direct report. “I don’t have to listen to
It’s a power dynamic more managers are facing as they try to rally and cajole teams that are
becoming more multigenerational. Millennials, the largest generation in the workforce, are now
mostly in their 30s and coming en force into manager roles.
Meanwhile, older workers are retiring later, either because they have to, or want to, keep working.
The over-55 set will hold an additional 150 million jobs globally by 2030, a new Bain analysis
A rash of workers quitting amid the pandemic, plus recent layoffs, scrambled hierarchies further.
Some 20- and 30-somethings have suddenly found themselves leading workers with years, even decades,
more tenure and experience. The pace of technological change means that the recent grad who majored
in AI could be your boss before long.
“It used to be, the older you were, the more experienced you were, the more authority you had, end
of discussion,” says Lindsey Pollak, an author and speaker focused on multigenerational workforces.
Now, instead of clear-cut seniority by age, there’s often awkwardness, tension and confusion.
Some younger managers fret for no reason, convinced older employees hate them when they really
couldn’t care less. Other teams openly clash over everything from speed of work to tone of voice.
Younger managers often want things done fast,
Pollak says, and consider an older employee’s more methodical approach old-
fashioned. A senior worker might wonder, is that millennial manager speaking
casually because she doesn’t respect me?
Get some gravitas
Pollak recommends younger managers size up their speech patterns. As an exercise, recount the story
of your day in 90 seconds. Try not to say “um” or “like.” Use clear language to convey authority.
It isn’t that you “think it is best if we set this sales goal.” It’s just: “This is the sales
If you clash with your team about a decision, acknowledge their opinions while
sticking to your call. “I hear you. Thank you for sharing that with me. I decided to go in a
different direction,” Pollak suggests.
Should someone pepper an innocuous comment about your age into conversation,
first try smiling and moving on, she adds. If it seems like they’re trying to stereotype or shame
you, respond with curiosity. “You’ve mentioned a few times how young I am. Tell me more about that.
Why did you bring that up?”
Lisa Sun was 25 when she was tasked with managing a 40-something newcomer at the consulting firm
where she worked. When she found out he’d bypassed her to share his financial analysis with her
boss, she felt angry, and a little insecure.
“Am I not good at my job?” wondered Sun, now the chief executive of an apparel
company and author of a coming book about cultivating gravitas.
Then she remembered all she brought to the table, like the five years experience she had at the
firm. She told him that going above her head had been disrespectful—and that she was the one who
could help him rise. “I know how this place works,” she
said. “Do you want the handbook? Do you want the shortcuts? Because I have all of
The approach worked. He stopped going to her boss, and together they nailed the project. When it
wrapped, she wrote him a glowing review.
Make the tough calls
Dale Yasunaga, now a 37-year-old general manager in Honolulu, still remembers the first time he was
introduced to a team as its sales director. One by one, workers in the conference room asked what
he, a 26-year-old new to the company, had to offer.
“It felt like the inquisition,” Yasunaga says. But he opted to assume the team had positive
intentions. He spent the first three weeks learning how people did their jobs, asking them: How can
I remove the stuff that’s making your work harder?
Then he followed through. He got rid of bureaucracy, like a multistep process for approving sale
pricing. He made tough calls, like letting go a company veteran who brought in a good chunk of
revenue but wasn’t a team player.
He sometimes worried about blowback. Before every decision he made, though, he’d ask himself: Does
this move us further in the direction of our ultimate goal, turning around our sales numbers? If
the answer was yes, he did it—and earned the respect of his team in the process.
Be the apprentice
Age often isn’t the dividing line we think it is, says Michael North, an assistant professor at New
York University who studies the aging workforce. A paper from North and a colleague found that
participants rated advice from others as equally valuable, whether the advice-givers were younger,
older or peers. In some conditions, participants knew the advice-giver’s age. In others, they
didn’t. It didn’t make a difference.
Have you managed folks who were older or more experienced than you? What was the experience like?
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“It turns out that you have as much to offer or advise as anyone,” North says of
Try asking for advice, too. Aaron Mitchell was a 35-year old Harvard M.B.A. straight out of the
life-insurance industry when he took over recruiting for animation roles at Netflix. Robin Linn,
one of his direct reports, was a graying former sculptor. He’d created the magical spellbook
featured in “Hocus Pocus”—a film Mitchell had seen as a kid.
Mitchell, now an entrepreneur and career coach, decided his best chance of earning
Linn’s trust was to lay out everything he didn’t know.
“I’d love to learn from you,” he said, noting Linn’s decades of experience. He also pointed out
that Linn probably didn’t want to do many of the administrative parts of the job, the less-fun
bits. “Leave that stuff to me,” he added.
“Together, we kind of worked,” Linn told me from a home office decked out with a Zebra-print rug
and a skeleton wearing a top hat. Both have since left Netflix, and Linn still remembers how
teaching Mitchell about animation made him feel good. He learned some stuff from his former boss,
“Just because you reach some marker in your career chronologically,” Linn says,
“doesn’t mean you know everything.”