Work Relationships

How to relate to your younger coworkers

Written by Eric Titner

For those of us who have been employed for more than a little while—including all of you seasoned veterans out there with many years of on-the-job experience—navigating the work world these days can be a bit of a challenge. We often have to fight against some of the misperceptions that come with being older in the workplace: that we’re out of date or technophobic, unable to relate to a younger demographic, devoid of energy, and unable to think innovatively. The list is long and has remained unfortunately persistent over the years.

The workplace can be a challenging environment when you’re on the wrong side of a noticeable age gap. Feeling like everything from clothes to conversations highlights the differences between you and your colleagues can make your professional life more uncomfortable and less satisfying than it could be.  

Being judged based solely on your age can also have a negative effect on your career and opportunities, and can make it hard to form satisfying and productive professional relationships with younger coworkers. It can also affect your health and well-being. According to a recent study reported in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, “Older workers tend to feel more stress than younger workers when their employers don’t provide them with the support and resources needed to do their jobs well.”

Thankfully, not all is lost. There are strategies that older workers can utilize to help them relate more effectively to their younger colleagues—and hopefully reduce or eliminate any false negative misperceptions based solely on their age. Consider the following tips if you find yourself surrounded by younger coworkers and are eager to bridge the gap.

Be open-minded

Chances are, your younger work cohorts are going to do things differently than you do—everything from how they talk and dress to the tools, processes, and systems they use for attacking tasks and staying organized. You may feel an impulse to write these differences off as not worth your time to consider adopting, or simply things that are merely passing fads or emblematic of their lack of experience and seasoning. Bad move! The truth is, staying open-minded to new ways of doing things is among the best ways to give off the impression that you’re not too old or incapable of embracing change—and can really help bridge any age-related divides and help you relate to younger colleagues. If you’re an older worker, it’s up to you to convince the younger folks that you indeed can teach an old dog new tricks—and you just may doubly benefit by picking up some new and improved ways of doing things along the way.

Show your value

Now that we’ve established that staying open-minded to the notion that you can learn a thing or two from your younger coworkers is a smart move, don’t forget to show that you have a lifetime of valuable experience to offer them in return. It may be unavoidable for some younger folks to immediately try to dismiss older employers as ineffective dinosaurs, but your best counterargument to this unfortunate impression is by proving to them exactly how wrong they are. Keep the lines of communication open and mutually respectful, and do what you can to impart your hard-earned wisdom. Many of us have had the opportunity to learn and grow with a mentor, so don’t be afraid to pay it forward.

Don’t sell yourself short

Too often, older employees try to deal with age differences by joking about it in a self-deprecating way. Not only is it a terrible way to try and relate to your coworkers, but it’s also only going to make relating to younger coworkers even more challenging by reinforcing any negative biases they may have. That’s like coming to work with a stain on your shirt and dealing with it by using a neon highlighter. Instead, avoid the “I’m just a dinosaur” jokes and focus on being the best and most effective employee possible, and someone who’s easy and enjoyable to talk to and work with. It’s a formula sure to win over younger colleagues.

Are you a seasoned veteran of the work world and searching for ways to improve your relationships with younger coworkers? Keep your head up and your mind open and use the strategies presented here to help make your work-life successful and enjoyable. Good luck!

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.